We had an emergency meeting because nonprofits were not signing up for a conference on how nonprofits and universities can collaborate. There is an unfortunate divide between the university and nonprofits—another “us versus them.”
The nonprofits think that academics have their head in the clouds and the academics wonder why nonprofits are not using best practices based on solid research. These two attitudes do not allow for true engagement with one another. So in our emergency meeting, we used our imaginations and kept asking questions: What would meet the needs of both? How might we structure a conference that allows for space to really dialogue and develop more trust for one another? How might we encourage positive conversation rather than the cynical dead-end sighing?
We talked honestly and we kept using the positive intelligence available to us. We refused to cave in to “this is just the way it is with these two sectors” (“same old, same old”) and we came up with several ideas that we will try out. We left the room excited about some new possibilities.
When we start to notice an “us versus them” mentality in the room, or in our own heads, we have the choice to move in another direction The question then becomes: “what might we do together that meets and respects both parties needs?”
Last week we had a visitor—from four states over—who came to our school for three days. He was looking for “best practices” and heard about some of the work we are doing through our school. Each time I took him to a class or to a nonprofit affiliated with our work, he looked at me and said: “This is extraordinary.” For example, when I took him to a nonprofit that works with homeless people in our community, the chaplain told him that we had collaborated together for over two decades on numerous projects. When we left that meeting our visitor said: “Never underestimate the spirit of collaboration.
In our community we have two separate nonprofit agencies that work with the homeless—because they cannot agree—and as a result they duplicate services and waste resources.” When he left I had a renewed sense of gratefulness for our team, our work and all that the school has contributed to this community in the past two decades.
He helped me make a shift from what I ordinarily see as “ordinary” to “extraordinary.” This seems to be the journey of gratefulness—to see with new eyes the unique gifts all around us—and to appreciate anew.
A woman repeatedly sat next to me during a weekend workshop and each time immediately began to talk. She talked about the weather outside (“pretty nice”), the temperature in the room (“too cold”) and the highlights from the previous session, for her (“amazingly relevant”). I listened but felt a tad irritated that she rarely took a breath for my sharing.
At one point on the second day of the workshop, we were asked to find a partner and she grabbed my arm. From that time together, I learned that she is just now getting back to normal life after finishing several months of cancer treatments. She explained that she is so excited to be around “regular” people again and can hardly contain her excitement to be learning new things to apply to her “new life” on the other side of her ordeal.
As she talked, my heart melted and all my irritability with her vanished. At the end of the weekend she told me that she was scared to come to this workshop without knowing anyone but that I had made her feel welcome. With sincerity, I told her that she had “made” my weekend.
As I settled into listening to her, she didn’t know it, but she helped me make a hairpin turn from irritation to compassion.
After a presentation on a college campus, a student asked me to talk further about “listening to the intelligence of our bodies.” I explained how our bodies “speak” to us in physical sensations and provide powerful opportunities to notice when and how we move away from peace or Divine Presence.
When we notice a sensation in our bodies, we can gently inquire within about the circumstance and thought that triggered the physical movement. And we find, most often, we are stressed about the future or we are bemoaning the past. At this point, we can let go of this thought that contracts the body and return to “the peace that passes understanding”—always available to us in the present moment.
Being aware of the voice of the body gives us messages about returning to the present moment—where Divine Love always resides.
I set up the room to teach a class on Compassion. I was sorting through the handouts and a woman came into the building. I asked her if she was “looking for Compassion”? She said with enthusiasm: “Oh yes! Please!” I asked her name and noted she was not on the class roster. She said that she “had to talk to someone—a woman—and right now!” I realized she was not in the class. I told her I had 10 minutes before class began and then I had to go and teach a Compassion class. We went into another room and she began: she was on a 30-day notice at work, she had blood in her urine, she was scared she was not going to have health insurance, and finally, she went to a male doctor and he was horrible to her. Nine minutes were gone and I stood up and gave her a phone number of a nurse to call. She asked—with raised eyebrows: “Can I take the Compassion class?” I replied: “No we are in week number four, maybe next term.” She said: “Oh, I have missed compassion?” And I said: “Yes, I believe you have missed compassion.”
When do we take action? When do we stop everything and turn to the other and ask with an open heart “Say more”. How do we remain balanced, vital and healthy in the midst of it all?
We were trying to do the right thing, and yet each step got more and more complicated. The children, formerly homeless and all vulnerable, had the opportunity to go to overnight camp for one week. Communication with the camp officials had many twists and turns as our families could not afford 65% scholarships—they really needed 90%. And our families could not find their W-2s or past documentation to show their financial need. The required physicals took some coordination, and then we got the list of materials needed (sleeping bag, bathing suits, etc). Once again, we needed to figure out how to facilitate this for 13 children. Then finally, for a variety of reasons, some children “got to go” and others did not go. We volunteers struggle all the time with boundary issues. How can we be present to what is going on (often to the chaos in the lives of these dear children and families) in a way that makes sense? When do we step in and take action, and at what point do we let go? How do we hold, at the same time, the systemic issues of poverty and the broken heart of a little boy who wanted to go to camp but could not? On all of this we pitch a tent in our hearts and crawl in and wait for the call of love.
We gathered for two hours to explore and share our writing. Within minutes we were learning, laughing and giving expression to the stories within us. We developed, in a short period of time, a sense of belonging. Several people courageously shared what they had just written. One story was hilarious as she described a character in her hometown—and another sad as we heard about the drawn drapes and secrets in her childhood living room. Research suggests that a sense of belonging—of support—is extraordinarily important for our mental, physical and spiritual health. We need a supportive community to develop our full, creative capacity. We begin to relax and trust our truest selves in the context of such spontaneity and kindness. In order to make a hairpin turn in our lives—in order to move toward a fuller expression of living—we need a community where listening, laughing, and loving surrounds us.
When we were young, we possessed untold creativity and vitality. Yet sometimes teachers, friends and even family members convinced us of something else. In our servant leadership classes, we examine how our culture squeezes creativity right out of us. We unravel the many ways we have been brainwashed. Then we courageously, in the good company of one another, take a hairpin turn in the direction of the spontaneity and energy of our true identity. Three steps help us make this turn: 1) Notice all the outside pressures to be compliant (“Purchase the newest i-phone; Pursue that MBA; Get the rain barrel”). Simply pause and notice all the ways we are asked to submit to these external appeals. 2) Ask yourself: “Does this purchase or action move me toward my own originality?” and 3) Drop into the intelligence of your heart, breathe and wait. Follow what emerges from within you.
I was just getting out of the bathtub when the phone rang. A woman announced she was from the alarm system at work and asked how quickly I could get to the office building to meet the police. I asked my husband to come along. We met a young, pink-faced policeman who looked a bit scared. I told him that sometimes homeless folks liked our benches out back. He moved down the sidewalk while I walked into the back area. An elderly man with a Red Cross tee shirt sat on the bench eating a sandwich. He had a large plastic bag by his side. I asked if he had tried to open the doors. “No—not me!” he said clearly and loudly. My question and tone were accusatory. I could have asked him how he was and then inquired, with neutrality in my voice, if he noticed anyone trying to get into the building. I sat on the step, feeling the summer breeze on my face and wondered what I would do if I had no place to go for the night. The policeman and the man talked loudly at each other and then the man marched past me and said: “have a blessed evening.” The policeman countered: “Stay safe.” What would happen if alarms went off every time we spoke to one another in ways that did not express our authentic selves? How might we turn off that irritating sound today?
After a long meeting, I gathered up the pieces of newsprint which held an abundance of logistical details on upcoming programs. I noticed that a member of the team slowly packed up her belongings. I became aware of her lingering moves and sensed she wanted to say something. We walked down the long hall and as were about to split up, she turned to me and blurted out: “How did you decide to write a book?” Immediately I perceived that she had something she wanted to express to the world. I asked her if she ever thought about writing a book and she hesitantly communicated her idea. She talked with tenderness about the possibility and also talked about what stopped her. She was an English major in college and had learned many rules about writing and she was not sure she was “up” for such a task. She looked at me with hope brimming in her eyes. How do we encourage each other to become fully expressed? Can we take a few minutes—even today—and ask someone near to us what is within them that wants to be communicated? And then support them through their hesitation? We can watch for such moments in our relationships and then we can pause and help one another become fully expressed.