Because of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show

Because of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show (and also Colbert), I’ve held belief that there is SOMETHING that each of us is uniquely capable of doing for the world that, if we could only see what it is and find a way to make it happen, would make us each successful beyond our dreams.

Jon was a good comedian and an actor who did fine. But he kept trying new things until he was described as incredible and amazing and important.

I believe that is in each of us. But we have to keep trying new things. Every day we sigh and accept ‘good’ and ‘fine’ is a day we are postponing our own experience of incredible and amazing.

Michael Jordan was not so great at baseball or golf.

What would you try if you knew you could not fail? What’s in your ideal job description, “if only?” What’s one thing you could do today to move yourself closer to the reality of that dream?

The Easter Cross, the crash of nails, and the mirrors.


Iron nails, posted to Flickr by user ncculture

The most powerful Easter experience I ever had was in a liberal/progressive, “welcoming and affirming” American Baptist Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania.  It would have been in the spring of 1994 or 1995, I think.

In a service before Easter, probably Palm Sunday (somehow), the pastor had delivered a sermon which included with it an activity that called on the entire congregation in attendance to participate.

Throughout the activity, we listened and sang about the nature of sin as separation from goodness, separation from each other, brokenness in relationship with others and with ourselves, all the judgments and anger and sullen self-centered obsessions that get in the way of our being able to love and accept each other.

And as we sang and listened, we processed through the sanctuary, getting in line to pick up our nails.

These nails symbolized our own sin–not surfacy things like drinking or lust or swearing but those things that fundamentally keep us from being in right relationship with each other, with God, with ourselves.

So we each picked up a handful of nails and walked up to a cross that was about two and a half to three feet tall, standing on a table in the center of the sanctuary.  The cross had strips of powerful magnets embedded in both beams, so the wrought-iron nails stuck easily to the magnets.

It was a large church, so when we were all finished, the cross was really covered in nails.  That was pretty symbolic.

On Eastern Sunday, the minister preached a sermon not so very different from most mainline Christian pastors and priests might preach.  Jesus took our sins upon himself, and because he did, we are not bound to them. We can–any time we choose–let them go and return to right relationship with each other.

To symbolize this act of removal and letting go, the minister in his robe and stole strode over to the cross covered with our nails and started wiping the nails off with great sweeps of his hand.

The nails crashed to the table, the iron clattering against glass and wood in a rolling thunderclap that resounded through the sanctuary. Stroke after stroke, the nails fell, smashing into each other, piling up on the table and scattering to the floor.  Each swipe and crash and clatter startled me, sending shivers around my skin like an electric charge.

It was the most visceral experience I’ve ever had of what it meant to have a clean slate. A fresh chance. My mistakes and fears and scorn all removed, piled up, and scattered.

I think of that cross, those nails, that thundering echo every Easter Sunday.

I do, of course, still have mistakes and fears and more scorn, still more, despite learning to respect others.

But I am grateful for the shining lights of faith, whatever that faith may be, whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or whatever, that have come into my life to let me know that I can set those mistakes and fears and scorn aside. I can risk loving even people who seem unreasonable. I can risk loving even people who seem wrong.

I can risk loving them because they help me to see the parts of myself that I still judge, that I still look down upon and reject.  I am learning that people who set us off are like mirrors, helping us to see what it is we haven’t yet learned to accept about the condition of being human.

I’ve learned that, as long as there are pieces of myself and pieces of you that I reject, there’s something inauthentic about how I am in the world. Mistakes and fears and even those things that might invite scorn are not who we are. We might even be passionate about them, but they do not define us.

Our humanness defines us. And while we each are unique–you are the only one of you that will ever be–our humanness ties us together.  We will have that in common, even if we have fundamentally different beliefs about what all of this means.

I can set aside my mistakes, my fears, and even my scorn to risk loving my own unreasonable, occasionally wrong self.  We are all in this together.

So I invite you to think of the last person you thought was crazy or unreasonable or neurotic or whatever, and just whisper, “Maybe I can accept them, because that is not all that they are, and I am also sometimes crazy (or unreasonable or neurotic or whatever). Maybe (another deep breath here) I can accept myself. We’re all in this together.”

For further reading: Pema Chodron on how and why to Be Grateful to Everyone.

Solutions emerging from a fishbowl

I operate on a few principles that get results:

  1. For new solutions, ideas, and strategies to emerge, we need to find a mid-point between order and chaos1.
  2. Asking questions with true curiosity helps us uncover more of the details, more of the system, more of our assumptions, and more possibilities2.
  3. We need to observe our reality before we can effectively change3.

A work group’s leadership asked me to help them address some challenges that had arisen in the ranks. They had faced change in their environments, and these leaders asked me to help them build community, ownership, and resilience.

I designed a retreat that would help the group members share stories, remember and practice tools they had for dealing with change, and build their own action plans. An activity I created4 to help them shift from remembering to practicing positive behaviors utilized these principles of emergence, disciplined questioning, and observation: a “fishbowl” exercise.

In the fishbowl, five volunteers from the group were asked to discuss an issue while the rest of the group silently observed.

I’d asked a member of the leadership team to volunteer for the fishbowl and prepared him for this role ahead of time. He was to present the topic for conversation and ask the other members of the group for help in addressing the problem.

The entire fishbowl group had been charged with exploring the topic, framing the problem in a way that they could actually solve, and begin preparing action steps. They also were given two ground rules: One, to make statements only in response to questions as often as they could, and Two, allow the facilitator (me) to intervene.

Observers had a charge as well: to look for positive evidence of certain positive behaviors–tools for dealing with change that the group had already learned.

After explaining to everyone in the room each set of roles and expectations so that all could visualize the whole, I asked the fishbowl group to begin. They discussed their topic for fifteen minutes without my intervention, and then I asked them to pause in their conversation to check the progress:

  1. “Fishbowl group, what is working so far?”
  2. “Observers, what positive behaviors (tools) in action have you seen so far?”
  3. “Fishbowl group, what could you do to be even more effective?”

When we finished with this five-minute round of questions, the fishbowl participants finished their discussion.

The results were fantastic.

  • The roles and charges for each group had created enough order to hold the chaos of a conversation I could not have predicted.
  • The charge to ask questions had uncovered a plethora of assumptions most in the room had never realized were held.
  • The opportunity to reflect on progress and identify effective steps forward helped them identify for themselves an important path out of confusion, and
  • the presence of observers with the charge to watch for positive behaviors helped the fishbowl participants engage at a more effective level.

You can take advantage of these strategies right away by asking one person in each meeting to watch out for positive behaviors, using any set of tools they are familiar with (such as Covey’s 7 Habits). Ask everyone in the meeting to respect the observer’s role, defer to him/her when the process-check time comes up, and listen with curiosity. Ask the observer to stop the meeting 20-30 minutes in (if it’s an hour-long meeting) to prompt a process check with the three questions outlined above–offering observations in response to question #2.

After a few meetings, and participants have grown accustomed to the presence of the observer/facilitator, you may decide to give the observer/facilitator greater power by asking him/her to stop the group with the same questions and offer positive feedback whenever it seems stuck in an ineffective rut.

What do you think of this idea? Does it sound like something you could try?

1 This principle came to me from the Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations. Read more and register here for training in Ohio.
2 A great resource for this is Michael Marquart’s book on Action Learning.
3 I also recommend Doug Silbee’s page on habits and self-observation.
4 I gratefully acknowledge the input, perspective, and deep questions of Rick Livingston, whose feedback helped refine the design of this activity into something with far less order and better opportunities for emergence.