The Line Between Sense and Senseless

Monday night, I sat transfixed watching the news and the stories coming out of Baltimore. Increasingly, I heard the word “senseless” being used to describe the violence and the destruction of property.

Before that was yet another senseless event — the death of Freddie Gray.

Stretching before that in countless threads of cause and effect, there were senseless things that have led to tragedy and violence and injustice.

So we struggle to change that. We work as hard as we can to make sense of it all.

The problem is that our sense is another person’s folly. Our senseless marks wisdom in the other guy’s life.  The problem is that we — each one of us — are attempting to be the line between sense and senseless. And I don’t care how smart you are, the line you draw individually will never be the definitive one.

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The line becomes sharper when the community addresses wrongdoing and ends the imbalance of power. Addicts, alcoholics, and compulsive people can be helped to an extent with medication, but the most effective path to recovery comes from community. The unemployed and under-employed, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the person with the “other color of skin,” the poor, and yes, even the rich see momentary gains in programs and short-term process. Yet short-term process enables only short-term progress. When community — neighbors, friends, and even opponents — come together and build understanding the line between sense and senseless is no longer the issue.

We are seeing community emerge in Baltimore. But what’s happening in Baltimore is a bigger problem than just Baltimore. It’s going to take a bigger community than just Baltimore. We all need to be part of that community.

Let there be no doubt, wrongdoing must be addressed by the community both quickly and decisively. But it must be addressed on both sides of the line between sense and senseless. When countless individuals stand together, the line disappears and we move forward together.

Today, let’s set aside our individual efforts to be that line between sense and senseless. Instead, let’s stand together where we can be seen and lift where there is a burden.

Trust and Truth

Jack Welch, former chair and CEO of General Electric and recognized leadership expert, recently made these comments in an interview:

Leadership today is all about two words: It’s all about truth and trust. You’ve got to have their back when they didn’t hit it out of the park, you’ve got to have their back when they hit it out of the park.

When they trust you, you’ll get truth. And if you get truth, you get speed. If you get speed, you’re going to act. That’s how it works.

I started thinking about that idea of truth through trust and of how that has impacted my life. You most likely can join me in naming people in your life who chose to trust you. And like me, you can probably tell stories about how that trust allowed you to be truthful. And to complete Mr. Welch’s formula, how that prompted you to action.

In a relationship like that — an investment of trust, an attention to truth — the ties that bind become stronger. The overlap of lives that are trusting and truthful produces great things — love, respect, creativity, and resilience when things go well and even forgiveness and energy to start over when hard times hit.

Sometimes it seems to me that my quest for truth in a relationship overshadows that foundational element of trust. After all, honesty and integrity are the two great pillars of western civilization, aren’t they? With truth comes justice and we exalt justice above most eveything. So let’s just cut to the bottom line and get to the truth, right?

But truth isn’t an end unto itself. Truth clears a path — certainly to action as Mr. Welch states — but also to additional trust. Trust allows people to come together and do things that no one person could do alone. Trust brings progress, spins off truth, and builds community.

On occasion, I have found myself looking back over a train-wreck of a relationship. I smile smugly hoping to believe that I was a “champion of truth” and that all other actions were justified. In other words, this mess at my feet it seems, was a tribute to my loss of sight of the possibilities of trust.

I wonder how much more good might have been done if I had invested as much in building trust as I did in extracting the truth.

For today, I will build trust by

  • valuing relationships over my drive for truth.
  • being transparent as an entree to confidence in relationship.
  • being reliable — delivering on what I’ve promised in order to build value in relationship.

There’s so much more to this. Next time let’s explore those relationships where the other person contributes to the void in trust and what we might do to rebuild trust with, of all things, truth.

Shooting Off Balance

I’m not a sports fan. I don’t dislike sports. I’m just not a fan.

I once was a fan of football and basketball. I followed teams and players, kept up with rule changes, and made certain that I was in place when my teams played.

Then, I became busy with other things — some important, some not so much. My interest in sports waned and I found myself drawn only to game highlights. Without the thread of the backstory, I soon found myself wondering why I had ever watched at all. And why millions and millions of people seem to live only for sports.

Some of you, many of my friends among you, will say that I am the way I am because I never really played a sport. And because of that, I don’t understand. I can see some truth in that. Except I think we all have experienced what ABC Sports used to call “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Sports is a human story with good parts and bad parts.

Life is a human story with good parts and bad parts. And I know the good part that we like the best. I saw two examples of it this morning at the gym on the sports highlight show blaring from the wall in the weight room.

One baseball player and one basketball player. Two different sports. Two different cities. Telling the same story.

When I was growing up and making a feeble attempt to play sports, the adults who coached me wisely told me to pay attention to my form. “Watch your balance and body position!” In summary, do everything possible before you throw the ball or shoot for the basket to give yourself the best odds of success. So, we studied and practiced form every day. As a result, I had a pretty good shot in basketball. Too bad I couldn’t overcome being short and slow with better form.

So we exalt the virtue of form in dealing with all things — both sports and life — from a perfect model. Yet, neither life nor sports grants us the constant opportunity for good form.

As I watched the highlights reel this morning, I saw these two players — over and over again — make an impossible throw or sink an unbelievable shot. The game situation didn’t allow for balance or form. The game called for action. And they delivered in a way that even fans found incredible.

So, your coaches from sports and from life are right. You need to know and practice form in all you do. Learn the right way to do things. Practice. Observe. Correct. Practice again.

And then realize that most of the moments you are called to action will not present the opportunity to be in balance. You will have to shoot the ball off balance. You will have to do your job in adverse conditions. You will have to love the unlovable as they curse you and spit in your face.

Peacemakers, because peace is not an absolute condition in this imperfect world, we need to learn the best practices of our calling. Yet, we need to stand ready and eager to give our best in the face of imperfection. Our preparation and God’s hand will make it work.

Subverted Conflict

Conflict resolution professionals point constantly to the danger of allowing disagreements about important things (or at least things we perceive as important) to slip below the surface. So, while avoidance is a fitting way to deal with some conflict, it almost never has a good effect in important relationships or within essential environments like home, church, or the workplace. Subverted conflict eats away at our very souls and causes us to channel our behavior in unhealthy ways.

The American Psychiatric Association notes that one of the reactions people exhibit is passive aggressive behavior.

“In psychology, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a habitual pattern of passive resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, stubbornness, and negativistic attitudes in response to requirements for normal performance levels expected of others. Most frequently it occurs in the workplace where resistance is exhibited by such indirect behaviors as procrastination, forgetfulness, and purposeful inefficiency, especially in reaction to demands by authority figures, but it can also occur in interpersonal contexts.” (1)

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Even if you’re normal, you can slip into passive-aggressive mode. Many times it begins with a righteous intention. You plan to withdraw from an opponent and perhaps even concede. But then, your ever-creative mind sees ways to strike back against your foe and still leave you with the ability to deny culpability. But it rarely makes you feel better or improves your circumstance.

If you’re caught in this tank of subverted conflict, what should you do?

1. Recognize your passive-aggressive behavior and label it. Make yourself not just aware, but sensitive to your actions and their impact on others.

2. Substitute more productive behavior.

a. Be wholly passive; make certain that the outcomes of your passivity don’t cause problems for others; or
b. Intentionally set your passive-aggressive behavior aside; it may not be possible to simply “get over” the conflict, but acting positively in the face of adversity will do wonders for your personal well-being; or
c. Prepare and pursue a conversation with your opponent, either one-on-one or with the help of another — preferably a neutral individual like a mediator — to address the underlying problems.

3. Navigate to a different environment; leave the situation if it will never change and you can never bring change to the way that you will address the conflict.

If neither of the first 2 things work, wait just a little while and try again. Your behavior is simply your behavior. You can choose what you will do or say. Only after a little persistence should you walk away.

(1) American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatic Association. pp. 733–734. ISBN 0890420629.

Cartoon courtesy of marriedtothesea.com.

A System for Peace

I am always trying to be more efficient. Or, more precisely, I am always thinking about my need to be more efficient. And, one of my dreams is to become really efficient at having peace as a featured part of my life. I long for a system for personal peace.

The problem is, I’m not sure that peace can be that neatly arranged or packaged. After all systems have a tendency to fail.

We see systems fail around us constantly. In fact, system failure is one of our most popular topics of conversation with our friends and acquaintances. “You won’t believe what happened to me today . . .” we begin. And then we spin our story designed to evoke incredulity and amazement at the way someone or some system has failed. Fast food restaurants that aren’t fast. Parcel delivery services that tell us our address is not valid — by mailing a card to that same address (which we received, by the way, because every one knows this is a valid address). Publishing companies that can’t ship a review copy of a text book.

And with each new failure of a system, we sigh and long for a better way.

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Yet, systems engineers often point out that a system failure can often be corrected by addressing a very small part of the process. For each piece of the process, no matter how small, is extremely important to success.

In a system for peace, small pieces are important, as well. We look at the major conflicts around the world, in our own nation, and our own backyard and we wonder, “Can anything be done?” Often we respond with a “no.”

The truth is that peace systems work when people are actively engaged. Your piece of peace, regardless how small, is important. If you want to be part of a peace solution, you have to address the conflict appropriately. Your system will always fail if you don’t.