Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's Okay to Fall Down

My 4 year-old daughter Sophia is taking group ice skating lessons at the local municipal rink, and her enthusiasm for learning how to skate went from 60 to zero once she had to step on the ice for the first time. After being escorted by hand to her "lane" to join her other "Tot 1" (pre-K kids who haven't skated a lick in their lives) lesson-mates, she had the look of a deer in headlights.

The lesson started with walking small steps forward and keeping balance with both arms out and to the front. All the kids swayed like drunken frat boys on a Friday night and most fell, including Sophia. Sophia struggled to get back on her skates and with great trepidation tried to scuffle forward again... and fell again. She tried to get back on her feet and I could tell she was beginning to cry. This being the first day, that scene was played over all over the rink and in a handful of cases, I saw some parents walking to the entrance and collecting their kids from teaching assistants as they sobbed.

As Sophia stood still like a statue on the ice with tears streaming down her face, I debated whether I should walk down to ice level to encourage her to press on. Could I comfort her and send her back? Unlikely, because once she got off the rink, you'd need the jaws of life to pry her from me to get back on the ice. Making a hard split second decision, I decided not to make eye contact with Sophia walk down to the rink to collect her. I knew that once she saw me moving towards the rink, she'd point at me and continue to wail and she'd insist upon the teachers bringing her to me - she wanted to go home.

So I did something that was really hard for me. I watched her from a distance. I watched her cry. I watched her struggle with fear as the skating instructors tried to gently coax her to take some more steps forward. And perhaps recognizing that daddy wasn't going to pull her out of the class and take her home, eventually my daughter slowly began to try again, even as she was crying. She shuffled her feet and resumed the activity, slower than the other kids, but she eventually made it across to the other side.

At the end of her lesson, I gave her a hug and told her that she did a really excellent job for her first lesson. I told her that I was proud of her for being a brave girl and that even in the span of the 30 minute lesson, I saw her get better. And then we had this exchange:

Me: Honey, why were you so sad?
Sophia: I fell down.
Me: Were you hurt?
Sophia: No. I was sad because I fell down.
Me: Honey, it's okay to fall down.

Then I had "the talk" with her about not being afraid of "failing", and that there was something really good about working through something that was difficult and eventually getting better at. I probably went into full cliché mode and rattled off some things plagiarized from John Wooden or Knute Rockne, but hopefully she got my point.

I realize that what's much more important than my words to her (and my other children) are my actions and how I love and care for them when they "fail". If I really want my children to understand the essence of grace (from God, their parents, and their self) when they stumble, I think it's about communicating more than simply "You'll do it right next time", which can be interpreted as "You failed and I expect you to succeed soon." Hopefully what I'm communicating is that there's redemption in failing as a learning experience, and yes, learning from failure is something that can help us succeed later on. But above all, I never want her to feel that falling down makes me disappointed in her, makes me think less of her or makes me love her any less.

I'm proud of my daughter that she got up and kept trying. And maybe the perfect love and grace from a perfect God and Father (which I can only strive to imitate) gives us the freedom to fall down (and not get 'delivered' from our trial and suffering right away), dust ourselves up and get up, too.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Suburban Barn Raising

In the excellent movie "Witness" starring Harrison Ford, there are two scenes that I particularly love. The first is the one when Ford, a police detective in hiding as an Amish man, beats the crap out of an obnoxious tourist. The other is a scene where members of the Amish community gather together to help a family raise a barn.

I thought about this second scene last week when a couple of fellow NJ Transit train commuters and I were walking back from our station en route to our homes and encountered an elderly gentleman who had suffered a front flat tire and had left his car in the middle of the street. My next door neighbor, who was at the scene first, was with another commuter trying to help the gentleman. The elderly gentleman was sadly a combination of disoriented and despondent, and we struggled to try to understand him due to a very thick European accent. He shared with us that his wife had recently passed away, and we did our best to simultaneously console him and troubleshoot the problem at hand.

The group of five of us first tried to call for a garage or roadside service that could help him fix his flat, but found little success. One of the ladies took the man's keys and drove the car out of the middle of the street and into a little standing area. After calling the local police department and waiting in vain, we just decided to change the flat ourselves. We cooperatively cleared out his trunk, located the spare tire and the jack and went ahead and changed the tire. As we were doing this, we all took turns either fixing the tire or consoling him as he continued to choke up about his recently deceased wife. I looked up a nearby auto service center, gave him the phone number and address, and we collectively coached him that he could drive on the spare temporarily, but he would need to go and get a permanent replacement soon. The man emotionally thanked us, and we all went our separate ways.

I walked away praying for the gentleman and wondering if there was more that I could have or should have done to help. I also walked away feeling that I had experienced a glimmer of what makes (and can make) suburban community great. In some ways, this was a suburban example of the barn raising scene in "Witness", which also happens when neighbors gather to make meals for people who are sick, and men gather together to help a neighbor put up a shed.

I was affirmed that these were a bunch of upper-middle class suburbanites - the (let's estimate) 3% who supposedly don't give a crap about each other much less total strangers. These are the people who (as I've mentioned before) supposedly value convenience, privacy, self-order and the accumulation of material possessions at the expense of shared community, human interaction and spontaneity. It struck me that six people didn't need to solve this problem, but nobody wanted to leave. Nobody rushed off and said, "Well, you guys don't need me, I need to go back to my godless suburban existence and watch FiOS on my big-screen TV," or "Okay, I'm out of here. I need to balance my ample 401k holdings." Every person just knew that their place was to stay there and help this man.

I'm not fast-tracking these people (and certainly not myself) for sainthood. But I'm encouraged that decency and a desire to help a stranger in need still exists in places which might surprise some people.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Comfort and Complancency

Ten years ago when I was a management consultant, I remember sitting in an airport waiting area and seeing a sign for a major hotel chain with a picture of a young child lying peacefully with her head leaning against her golden retriever with the tagline "When you're comfortable, you can do anything." The premise - an effective one because it's always stuck with me through the years - was that being comfortable and at ease enabled you to perform at your optimum level. Or to contextualize it to the ad, staying at this particular hotel put you at rest and ease so you could give killer presentations to clients and 'wow' the heck out of your engagement partners.

I can see how this axiom has played true in many aspects of my life. Professionally, I've been in situations where I have an extremely comfortable relationship with my boss. It's not that the job isn't demanding, but I have a clear understanding of his or her communication-style and we have this Joe Montana to Jerry Rice-like connection where I almost know what my boss needs before he or she does. The boss doesn't micromanage me because I hit all the right notes, and I'm thus given the flexibility to do what I need to do on my own terms and my own time. It's a very comfortable situation, because the job itself becomes very comfortable. I reach a point where I master the requirements of the position and the expectations of my boss, and I find myself energized and excelling.

In many ways, it's about reaching a certain equilibrium. Even relationally, you can find a comfort zone where you're devoting your limited time to family and friends at a measure where these people and you are spending neither too much or too little time with each other. Your friendships are comfortable and for the most part without conflict or strife. You've reached stability in relationships with people with whom you have little conflict where engagement is emotionally uplifting and energizing as opposed to emotionally draining. Some would equate this to Mr. Miyagi's concept of "balance". And when you have relational balance and comfort, life is feeling pretty good and you may find yourself being even a better parent, spouse and friend.

On the flip side, some people would argue that comfort - leading the complacency - is the place where you don't want to be. This wisdom would contend that you need to stretch yourself and put yourself in "crucible" situations where you will possibly, even very likely, fail. It is in these failures which the greatest personal growth occurs and you're forced to unlock skills formerly untouched and unused. In a spiritual life sense, the comfort zone of complacency almost inevitably leads to the illusion of self-sufficiency, and the heart begins to wonder, "Who needs God? Who needs prayer?"

I suppose that's the challenge. How can one find themselves comfortable without being complacent? Perhaps it lies in the basis of the comfort. For example, if I really am living according to a Christian worldview, my comfort - or perhaps the better word to use would be 'security' - would not be a product of my good circumstances which may waver good and bad, but rather a result of living in the shadow and providence of a sovereign and loving God. This makes all the difference. If I really believe that my God is sovereign, it would stand to reason that this would free me to take chances that I otherwise would not take and to live with a freedom unencumbered by fear of failure.

I am left believing that there is nothing wrong with comfort per se. I should express my thanksgiving for what I have and for circumstances that are favorable. But more importantly, the onus is still upon me to ensure that I don't cling onto those peripheral circumstances which give me comfort, but to live a life which is enveloped in the security of the Gospel - thus giving me freedom to live with abandon to stretch myself in the ways which God has called me to, and to move forward in places relationally and spiritually (and even professionally) I haven't gone before.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Importance of Moderate Voices

In the past two months, the United States Senate was hit with news that Senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska and Senator Olympia Snowe would not continue their respective tenures in government. Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska announced his retirement in December of 2011, and Snowe, a Republican from Maine announced that she, too, will not run for re-election in 2012.

What's interesting to note is the special place the Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe played in their respective political parties. Nelson was known as a conservative Democrat who often aligned with Republicans in social issues, but stood with fellow Democrats in their strategy around conomic stimulus and welfare programs. Snowe, on the other hand, stood with fellow Republicans in opposition to the Democrats' health care reform package, but has consistently voted in support of access to abortion and the confirmation of Supreme Court judges her colleagues had deemed as activist. These are two politicians who have not traditionally voted "down the party line" when it comes to the mainstream of their political party.

My point isn't to either applaud or criticize the records of Nelson and Snowe, but to note that the loss of both of these individuals is a blow to their respective parties and to the United States government.

It's telling that a quick Google search of reactions of their retirement announcements yield - at best - tepid reactions from many in their own party. Liberal firebrands such as Rachel Maddow disdainfully dismiss Nelson as a "sort of" Democrat whose usefulness was predominantly to give the Democrats a surprising vote from a conservative state like Nebraska. Conservative pundits Michelle Malkin spoke for many fellow conservatives with the quip, "DLTDHYOTWO (Don't let the door hit you on the way out)" as Snowe announced her retirement.

Unfortunately, too many people perceive moderate perspectives as a euphemism for compromise, and compromise as a euphemism for unprincipled. I have strong convictions and I'll be the first to admit that I'd love to have my government representatives mirror my own views. I'm also cognizant, however, of the danger of group-think and an absolute everyone-loses scenario when legislative gridlock occurs.

Whether they'd like to admit it or not, I have no doubt that having Ben Nelson involved in Democratic strategy sessions was highly beneficial for Democrats. He provided an alternative view to the mainstream party line and provided a voice for socially-conservative Democrats who have always felt that their views were always buried under the avalanche of liberal rhetoric. The same is true with Olympia Snowe, who tried to impress upon her fellow Republicans that there were a segment of people who liked small government and limited government obstruction on the entrepreneurial spirit, but were fiercely pro-environment and pro-choice. Regardless of whether they agreed with these "moderate" (detractors would call them "faux-Republican/Democrat") perspectives, they humanized and provided a window into a segment of the voting constituency. From a pure competitive perspective, wouldn't any party who wants to win want that?

The problem transcends politics and is pervasive in work and friendships as well. What happens too often is that people don't want to invite the "skunk to the picnic", and it's much easier to huddle with people who will vigorously nod with everything that you say as opposed to spending the emotional and intellectually energy of deliberating and exchanging opposing views. It's completely understandable and defensible. Life is certainly draining enough without the need to seek conflict and disagreement. In business, you don't want to have to debate and fight through obstruction after obstruction from doubtful colleagues, so you find people who will embrace your vision and strategy and move forward without question.

The downside is that our individual blind sides will just get more and more pronounced. Not only will our society will become more polarized, but we'll find ourselves increasingly unable to engage or find common ground and major mistakes will be made because instead of the wisdom of crowds, we'll get the tunnel vision of a view. And all of us will pay the price for it.