Traffic Jams

I love the speaking work I do, because even when I’m presenting about a topic I’ve addressed before, I always learn something new. 

I was recently with a group of church leaders, exploring improv as both a spiritual practice and a tool for good leadership. We were talking about the pace of change and how overwhelming it can seem. As a visual parable for this, I showed the short video Rush Hour. In this clip, a normal intersection has been creatively edited to heighten the traffic congestion, with lots of near misses and narrow escapes. (Click on the video below, or use this link.)

People usually resonate with the video immediately, with most folks feeling some level of stress at all the close calls. One person in this group loved it, though, as an example of a well-run system: Congestion is inevitable, but if nobody collided, and traffic kept flowing, that’s a GOOD day indeed! 

We reflected on the ways in which ministry leaders must manage complex systems involving staff, volunteers, church members, the community, and more. Then one person made a point that will forever change how I see this video. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but here’s what I heard and have continued to ponder:

We deal with other people all the time in our work. And it’s easy to imagine each of us as one car, or truck, or pedestrian in that intersection. But actually, each of us is our own intersection. Each of us is managing untold roles, responsibilities, and relationships. Our traffic is both internal (did I lock the front door? why is my teenager ignoring me this time?) and external (I’m two days late on that report; the dryer is making that weird sound again). 

Boom!

I felt the deep truth of my colleague’s observation. At the same time, I felt that familiar “ker-plunk” in my gut as I realized how much more complicated this makes our task. It’s hard enough to navigate the perils of leadership when you see each person in the group as its own moving part. But team members are all a network of moving parts. And leaders are their own intersections too. I imagined one intersection superimposed on top of another, endlessly, like those clear plastic pages in science books that show individual systems of the body.

I’m still pondering the implications of this insight. I also know that, as a leader, I can’t be other people’s internal traffic cop. The best I can do is keep my own intersection running as smoothly as possible—and keep an eye out for potential fender benders—even as I try to be compassionate toward other people’s internal gridlock, collisions, and close calls.

I’ve long loved the quote, attributed to countless writers and philosophers, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.” I recognize the truth of it, though I’m not always the best at living it. Maybe we could alter it slightly, to “Be kind, for everyone is fighting traffic.” 

Onward,
MaryAnn

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The Power of 2%

Sometimes, the coach needs some coaching of her own.

During my training to become a ministry and leadership coach, I remember learning about 2% shifts—those small changes that can make a big difference down the road. It’s like prying open a stuck window, just an inch or two. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough to give you leverage to heave it open further. Plus, you get a peek of what’s on the other side, and sometimes that glimpse is vision enough to inspire you to deeper action. 

But it’s one thing to know something intellectually, and another thing to internalize it enough to do it.

Like many of you—and I know this is true because you tell me—I have felt utterly saturated with news, information, and commentary. The constant onslaught of 24-7 news, much of it negative, has left many of us feeling weary, depleted, maybe even helpless and despairing. As Bilbo laments in The Fellowship of the Ring, "I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” (Can I get an Amen?)

Meanwhile, with three children, a spouse, a calendar plump with speaking engagements, and a growing coaching practice, I’ve been gravitating to a spirituality of motion. Quiet, still spaces are in short supply; instead I try to be attentive to the flow of the Spirit amid my activity. It works, for the most part, but has felt insufficient of late. A trusted friend recently suggested 5 minutes of silence each day. I have to admit, I shrugged at the suggestion. It seemed way too small a practice to make any difference. What’s 5 minutes amid 1,440 daily minutes of perpetual motion? (OK, I do sleep for some of those 1,440 minutes. Still.)

But my friend rarely steers me wrong, so I downloaded the Insight Timer app, picked out a couple of chime sounds that I liked, set it for 5 minutes, and breathed. 

I skipped a couple of days after that, and then I did it again. And again the next day. And over the next couple of weeks, a few more times. I decided to sprinkle a few of Insight Timer’s guided meditations into my practice. In the spirit of #WorldsOkayest, I’ll admit I’m tending to these brief silences maybe 30% of my days. And I'm stuck in the 6-10 minute range; it's all I can manage.

And still, it has made a difference. I can’t explain it. Five minutes is so small, you see. But I feel ever-so-slightly more alive, more grounded. More alive means I’m awake to my life in a more satisfying way, though I have a long way to go. More grounded means I’m able to read the headlines of the day, however dismaying they may be, with greater peace, and a more abiding sense of defiant hope and faith that bad news will never the final news.

A 2% shift. A pried-open window.

As if on cue, a friend posted this short video of Mr. Rogers talking about the gift of a deep, quiet, unhurried breath. Perfect:

I wonder what 2% shift you are being called toward? I would love to hear about it. Maybe we can encourage one another!

Onward,
MaryAnn

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The Comparison Trap

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On a recent Saturday I had the chance to fill in for a running coach friend, overseeing a training group she’s been leading. These were mostly new runners, some of whom are training for their first 5K or 10K, out for their weekend group run and looking for guidance and encouragement. I mainly coach individuals, so it was great (and a little daunting) to stretch my skills and try something new. 

I ended up sticking with the brand-new runners—as in, this was their second week of training: run 90 seconds, walk 2 minutes, repeat for 25 minutes. It was gratifying to go at their pace, remembering a time when that was really, reallydifficult for me—as it was for them that day—and reflecting on just how far I’ve come. (Marathon #4 in four weeks!) Who knows where this process will lead them, but it was joyous to contemplate what’s ahead of them, and hold out hope that they will gain as much strength and empowerment from their journey as I have from mine. Or, perhaps, that they tap into that strength and empowerment in other ways.

The next day, those lofty happy feelings came crashing back to earth when I read a Facebook humblebrag from another runner who ran her very first 5K the day before… and placed in her age group.

Sigh. 

After almost eight years of running, I’ve seen great personal progress, but remain stubbornly on the slow side of average. And on my good days, I’ve made my peace with it. Talk to a runner long enough, and pace will usually come up in conversation, but often it’s the least interesting part of a run. How you felt, what you saw, the peace of mind, the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, or even pushing yourself—these are the measures of a good run. Getting out there is what matters most... and if you’d told the seventh grade me, who gasped and seethed her way through the mile in PE class, that one day she would voluntarily do mile repeats at the track—at 5 a.m.—you would have gotten a big eye roll.

On my worse days, though, the comparison trap grabs me in its sharp, unforgiving jaws, holding me in place as the voices of Not Enough ring out: You’ve been at this for so long. Why aren’t you faster? You’re not a real runner.

Later that same weekend, my 10 year old, James, decided to put together one of the Raingutter Regatta boat kits we had left over from Cub Scouts. Margaret, always up for arts and crafts, joined him. Now, what you need to know about James is that he always opts out of the Raingutter Regatta. Hard to say exactly why, but I think our tender-hearted kid, who marches to a different drummer, doesn’t really care for this event, in which children go head to head in competition for the best boat, along with all the trash-talking that goes with it (however good-natured that chiding might be). 

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So I was touched by this spontaneous act of creation. It wasn’t about designing the best boat and winning the race. It was simply about having some fun on a Sunday afternoon: no evaluation, no benchmarks. 

Our world has an abundant supply of yardsticks, and no end of volunteers to wield them with perverse glee. Some of us are better at disregarding those evaluations than others, and social media sure doesn’t help. I don’t blame the new runner who dominated her age group; she should be happy and proud! My reaction wasn’t about her; it was about me: a sign that I need some self-care, some perspective, some kindness toward myself. Goals are great, but radical self-acceptance is some of the best fuel out there to help achieve them. (And if you don’t achieve them, you’re still beloved of God. Whew!)

Yesterday this Anne Lamott quote came my way: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” The comparison trap is most potent in an atmosphere of scarcity: for one person to win, another must lose; their good fortune is my misfortune. But the trap also snaps tight around us when our expectations are out of whack—when we’re too focused on “should,” when we grasp at unattainable and punishing ideals rather than loving what is.

You are a wonderful work in progress… and you are already who you are meant to be, right now. And so am I.

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Use Your Talent, Cast Your Patronus

Over the summer my kids hosted a Harry Potter movie marathon. They chose their four favorite films (out of the eight total) and invited friends over for themed food, decorations and fun. 

I happened to catch what is probably my favorite moment from the entire series, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Near the end of the story, at a moment of extreme peril, Harry looks into the distance and sees what he thinks is his deceased father casting a spell that helps save Harry’s life.

Through the quirks of time travel, he and Hermione are later able to go back to that same spot. They find a good vantage point from which to watch, where Harry crouches with anticipation of his father’s arrival. He watches, as if viewing a play, as a group of sinister wraiths called dementors swirls over him and his godfather, Sirius Black. (Yes, there are “two” Harry Potters. It’s time travel; don’t try to figure it out.) 

And he waits for a glimpse of his father. He watches Sirius’s life (and his own) slipping away under the dementors’ attack, and he waits. Any minute now. My father will be here to save the day.
 

Finally Hermione says quietly, “Harry. Nobody’s coming.” And that’s when Harry realizes—there will be no hero galloping to the rescue. HE was the one he saw casting the spell. It’s up to him. So he steps up and conjures the life-saving patronus, a spell he'd been struggling with for a year.

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He explains to Hermione later in the story, he knew he could do it, because... well, he’d already done it. 

But I believe he also knew he could do it, because he had to do it. There was no other option.

Whether it’s news of another mass shooting, or reports that there are still some 700 children who have not been reunited with their parents at the border, or a wistful feeling at the death of John McCain and wondering where the principled leaders in Washington are, things can seem quite grim. Or maybe the wistfulness is more localized—broken relationships, fear and uncertainty, sadness that things aren’t “the way they used to be.” 

The thing is, though... nobody’s coming, folks. It’s up to us, whatever “it” might be. So we curse the darkness and cast our spell, whatever that looks like. But we cannot wait for someone else. We're it. One of my running mantras is, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” (It applies to more than just running.) 

But, like Harry, we know that we have the strength to survive this terrible threat, because people just like us have done it before, and we don’t do it alone.I’ve long loved the old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And for those of us who identify as Christian, Teresa of Avila nuances this point even further:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good...

Recently I heard my colleague Jim Atwood offer remarks at the Presbyterian Writers Guild luncheon, where he received this year’s Distinguished Writer Award.

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Jim has spent some 30 years writing and advocating for more sensible gun laws; it has become his life’s work. In his reflection, he talked about the parable of the talents, the story told by Jesus in which a landowner gives three servants varying amounts of money, called talents. 

Jim looked around him and saw people with what he considered to be five talents and two talents, and kept waiting for one of them to lend their gifts to the issue of gun violence. Their writing gifts were so much greater than his, he said. They had a larger audience, more influence. He waited and waited… and finally realized that he needed to stop waiting for someone else to pick up the cause that he felt so convicted about. 

He stepped out in faith and conjured his “patronus.” He used his talent to say what he believed, and to be a voice of conscience in the church, and beyond. 

...Somebody oughta. 
That somebody is probably you.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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When You're Tempted to Give Up

I'm on vacation this week, so in lieu of a post written by me, I want to pass along a story that's been resonating with me lately.

Many of us know and love Humans of New York, the book, website and social media presence. HONY is the brainchild of Brandon Stanton, who took a simple premise and made it a huge phenomenon: to photograph ordinary New Yorkers, telling their stories. It's a testament to the power of attentive listening and radical empathy, and has become wildly popular--an outpost of kindness on the Internet. (HONY is now nomadic, with recent trips to Pakistan, Brazil, and more.)

 Brandon Stanton.

Brandon Stanton.

But have you ever heard the story of how HONY began? Here is Stanton talking about the tumultuous--and lonely--early days. I'm not going to offer any commentary or pithy summary at the end of this--I'm simply going to share it, so we can rest in these words and let them do whatever they need to do, for each of us:

“I’m in New York, and I’ve been trying to make it work for 6 months. I worked every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. All I did was photograph all day long. I had gotten thousands of these portraits and not many people were paying attention.”

“The hardest part about it was especially when I got started, and Humans of New York didn’t have any fans, and it wasn’t made into any books, and my family didn’t believe in it, and my friends thought I was crazy. I had no photography experience. I’m in New York City stopping random people and asking them questions. I’m feeling insecure.”

“When you walk up to somebody and you ask them if you can take their photo and they respond like you’re some sort of freak or that you’re weird, it’s hard to not internalize that because you’re so insecure at the moment about whether or not what you’re doing is weird and if it’s something that – am I weird for asking these people for their photographs? I’d go out some days, and ten people in a row would make me feel like I’m some sort of freak.”

“Like, “Do you know what city you’re in? You can’t be stopping random people. Get out of my way. What are you doing? No, you can’t take my photo. Get out of here.” And during my formative and impressionable early days when I’m trying to figure this out, five reactions like that in a row when nobody’s paying attention to your work, and you’ve been trying for months, and you can’t figure it out, psychologically was very tough. There’d be days where that would happen, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I would just go home and lay in bed.”

“It was all of the doubt, and not having any money, and nobody’s paying attention, and I’m just doing this all day long for months. The loneliness too, I didn’t know anybody in New York. I knew two people. There was a Christmas break where those two people went home, and for two weeks, I didn’t see anybody that I knew. I remember I spent Christmas Eve alone at a diner. Then I just went out and photographed because it was the only thing that would keep me from thinking about how unlikely it was and how stupid of an idea it might be.”

“The only thing that I think kept me from thinking about the possibility of failing was doing it, was just photographing. Whenever I started to think, “Is this gonna work? Is it not gonna work?” I’d just go out and photograph. That was my only way of keeping those wolves away of, “Is this ultimately going to be a success? Am I wasting my time? Am I stupid?”

“The only way to keep those away was to go out and work. So that’s what I would do just all day long and do it and do it and do it. These negative things like the rejection of people and people saying no that I was talking about, all of the negative stuff, the thing that was counteracting that all the time was just loving it so much. I just loved it so much.”


Onward.
MaryAnn

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Kick With Your Left Foot

I recently caught an episode of the Slate podcast, Upon Further Review, while out on a run. The program, and book by the same name, look at pivotal moments in sports history and ask, What if it didn’t happen that way? (Example: What if Richard Nixon had been good at football?)

The episode I heard considered the 1999 World Cup, in which the U.S. Women’s team beat China in a penalty shootout. The program used the “what if” format to highlight the fact that, despite the World Cup victory, women’s sports still struggle to achieve the same prestige, audience, and financial support as men’s sports. 

A particular detail in the story stood out to me. Brandi Chastain was the last of the US players to attempt a penalty kick, and when she prepared to walk onto the field, coach Tony DiCicco gave her a last-minute instruction: Take the kick with your left foot, not your right.

She did, and the U.S. won the game. You probably remember Chastain’s iconic celebration photo! (I covet those arms and abs... but I digress)

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Imagine if it had gone the other way. There was a lot riding on that kick, regardless of which foot she used, but think about what it must have been like for Chastain and her coach: she had never taken a penalty kick with her left foot in a professional game. Ever.

Chastain explained the rationale for switching feet: the Chinese team was surely well-schooled in Chastain’s moves, and would have be able to anticipate where the ball might go. Changing feet made that kick less predictable. But with my improv lenses on, I also wonder whether switching things up was a way of getting Chastain out of her head, allowing her to be a little looser, less mechanical, more grounded, as she executed that historic kick. 

As I am often fond of saying, I practice and write about improv because it doesn’t come naturally to me—I like my backup plans to have backup plans. And I’m a good planner. I could probably live the rest of my life making good solid plans and carrying them out. It would probably be a fruitful life. But… it also sounds a little boring, even to me. 

I’ve been wondering what it would mean for me to “kick with my left foot”—to intentionally introduce some unpredictability into my life. To do the opposite of what I’m conditioned for and comfortable with, just to see what happens. To surprise myself. What would it mean for you or your organization to do the same? What would we learn? What do we have to lose? And best of all, what do we stand to gain?

I went looking for more information about this World Cup story, and unsurprisingly, Chastain had practiced kicking with her left foot a lot. A lot. Yes, she’d never deployed that move in a game, but she’d practiced and prepared and conditioned. And when the moment came—the decisive moment—she was ready. 

And that’s how life works, isn’t it? We do what's ours to do, day by day. We pursue our “craft,” whatever that might be; we explore what it means to be our authentic selves; we learn, we engage in rituals and traditions, we practice—so that at moments when we are most needed in our communities and families, we are ready to give our best effort for the sake of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. As Danusha Veronica Goska writes, “When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.”

Tiny, decent things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things… so we’re ready to jump in, with either foot forward.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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When the World is Overwhelming

Greetings from St. Louis and the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, a biennial meeting of pastors, elders, young adults, advisory delegates and more, who will deliberate and make decisions about the church, its mission and its future. I’m here on behalf of NEXT Church, talking up our coaching initiative, and offering free coaching sessions for people throughout the week. Some people are feeling stuck in their lives or ministries; others just want to debrief the events of this week. It’s always a holy task, this ministry of deep listening and asking important questions. 

The decisions made at GA include plenty of picayune insider stuff about the Presbyterian Church’s governance and structure. But we will also take stands and make statements addressing a number of issues facing our world, hopefully in ways that lift up justice and liberation. Yesterday we marched en masse to the St. Louis City Justice Center, carrying $47,000 to bail some 36 people out of jail. These are folks who are simply awaiting trial, but because they are too poor to afford bail, they are languishing in jail. 

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It was inspiring to put faith into action, and to do something public and specific to set captives free. 
It also feels like not nearly enough. 

It’s surreal to observe committee meetings and have conversations in hotel lobbies and a fancy convention center, knowing there are children along our southern border who have no idea when or whether they will see their parents again. News broke just last night of so-called “tender age” shelters for infants and toddlers. It is projected that some 30,000 children could fall victim to the family separation policy before the end of the summer. There are various proposals floating around Congress to end the practice, and as I write this, there are reports that the president will be signing a statement to that effect. Time will tell.

Immigration is a tough, tangled issue, befuddling countless presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat. But as a Christian, this one isn’t hard. Jesus said in Matthew 25, “that which you did to the least of these, you did to me.” And he didn’t stutter. 

Many people I talk to are numb right now—the onslaught of news feels relentless, and it’s hard to even figure out what’s accurate, let alone what to do about it. And the actions of an informed citizen—writing a letter, casting a vote—feel so paltry in the wake of political forces that are much bigger than all of us. 

In the midst of this numbness, I keep thinking about an interview I heard with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, the creative team behind the musical Hamilton. They were reflecting on the early days of working on Hamilton—writing, editing, and refining it—and how overwhelming it seemed. They adopted a motto, co-opted from Jerome Robbins when Fiddler on the Roof was in previews in Detroit. Things were not going well for the fledgling production. Kail says:

There’s this moment when Fiddler is really struggling, and Austin Pendleton, a young actor at this point, said, “What are we doing to do?” and Robbins said, “Ten things a day.” 

Just do the thing. Do the stuff that’s in front of you: “What can we accomplish today?” So we would come in after a show, and Lin and I would talk to each other… and we’d say OK, what can we accomplish at this time. And you just start chipping away.

 

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In my experience as a coach, many clients know where they want to go, but they’re paralyzed with the tremendous size of the task. So we work together on the principle of “ten things a day”—small, bite-sized pieces that slowly but surely move us forward. It's a way of staying present to today's work instead of tomorrow's results, which we can never control.

We live in chaotic, perilous times. Regardless of your particular convictions and beliefs, numbing out is a luxury we cannot afford. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. At times, the “something” is to pull back and rest—but always in the service of a deeper engagement, one small act at a time.

What might be today’s “ten things” to help bring about the world for which you hope?
Five things?
One thing?

Onward,
MaryAnn

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