Lessons From a 2-Year-Old

There are few things more humbling than time with a 2-year-old. I am one of the lucky ones who is privileged to be able to do so every day when my dear wife and I pick her up from daycare and then tend her and her older sister until Mom arrives home from work. We even enjoy occasional evenings. Some times are challenging but all are special and many, many moments are diamonds. The bright, cheerful, and sweet little girl is the most profound teacher I know.

Food

Food is not merely something that sustains us but a pleasure to be experienced. Sometimes that means dispensing with utensils and digging fingers deeply into our meal. Manners matter and please and thank you are necessary, of course, but the visceral joy of some meals must involve all the senses with gratitude measured by the colour of one’s cheeks. The rituals we adults attach to food are reduced to silly, cultural affectations.

Wonder

Walks offer startling moments of discovery. The spectacle of the sight and sound of breeze through the fresh, green leaves of a spring maple is something to stop and contemplate. “The tree is dancing!” “Yes, yes, it is.” The soft marvel of moss on forest rocks deserves a furrowed brow, gentle touch, and quiet contemplation. The fallen tree is a detective’s challenge. There is nothing better to awaken the soul than to have one’s eyes opened to sparkling detail.

Puddles

Rain is great because rain brings puddles. There is nothing in the world like marching with knees high and giggling with glee as puddles explode. Big, long ones demand several marches with each better than the last. Imagine if we could all relax and get over ourselves sufficiently to derive such unrestrained joy from such tiny pleasures.

Lessons from a 2-Year-Old

Hiding

Nothing beats hiding. If I can’t see you, of course, means that you can’t see me, so I vanish if covered by a blanket on the couch. Even covering one’s eyes will do. It never gets old. It is kind of like avoiding eye contact at meetings when a volunteer is being sought.

Determination

Sometimes words won’t do. There are some situations where only a foot-stomping, arm-waving, tear-pouring, high-decibel meltdown is equal to the rage of a prize denied, the unfair barrier, slight, or unmet goal. Each red-hot episode is followed by a period of reflection and contemplation, a settling of the soul, a hug, and the realization that life goes on. How many of us face similar situations of frustration and unfairness that leave us raging in silence, swallowing mind and body ripping stress, and longing for the hug.

Bath time

Bath time is fun. Stripping down, getting soapy and blowing bubbles while surrounded by colourful toys that float, toot, and sing is great.  And there is nothing like the security of a big warm blanket and clean pyjamas. Imagine if every day ended with a long, hot bath.

Books

Books are adventures. The world comes alive with possibilities as animals talk, kids explore, nature is kind, adults are safe, fun happens, and even in the face of danger and heartache, the ending is always happy. What a pleasure to watch cynicism on vacation.

Sleep

Sleep when tired. Awake when refreshed. How simple. Routine but no schedule. And the last thing you hear before heavy eyes whisk you to dreams, whether for a mid-day nap or ten hours at night, is “I love you.” May we all be so blessed.

The best hoax adults perpetrate on children is that we have it all figured out and know what we’re doing. Far from it. We are doing the best we can, making it up as we go along, and we are always learning. The best teachers I have in my life-long quest for wisdom are nine and two years old. There is nothing like the often gentle and sometimes stark and sudden lessons of a two-year-old to stand you up, cock your head, and remind you of how much is left to be learned.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it others and consider leaving a comment. My other columns rest at http://www.johnboyko.com and my books, all addressing History and Politics, are available through Chapters, Amazon, and, as Stuart Mclean used to used to say, at reasonable books stores everywhere.

Inventing Change: Why We Do the Things We Do

Consider when you showed up at work this morning and the consequences if you were late. How do you measure the power of your car and the light bulbs in your home? Consider your notions of a healthy environment, how your children are educated, and why most of us live where we do.

In that consideration, pay mind to the fact that at the Crofton Pump Station in Wiltshire, south of Birmingham, England, a steam-driven pump is pushing about twelve tons of water a minute to operate the locks along the Kennet and Avon canal. The same pump has been operating efficiently since it was installed in 1812. More than that, the pump’s core technology, and the notion that led to its invention, changed your world and is affecting you today in ways you seldom stop to think about. Change, you see, is sneaky.

inventing-changePhoto: feelgrafix.com

In 17th century Britain, coal had replaced wood as a source of energy. The need for more coal led to deeper mines which had a tendency to flood. At first, horses walked in endless circles to power the pumps that drained the mines. Then, using technology first developed by Hero in ancient Greece, Newcomen engines were developed. They burned coal to heat water to create steam which, when injected through big cylinders, caused a piston to move up and down to pump the water. In 1763, an enterprising young Scottish craftsman named James Watt was asked by the University of Glasgow to fix a broken Newcomen steam engine. He did more than that. He undertook a ten-year journey to solve the pump’s inadequacies. He even learned to read Italian and German to study current research.

Watt eventually invented a separate condenser that allowed cylinders to maintain a constant temperature and the pump to become enormously more efficient. He then formed a partnership with businessman Matthew Boulton. With Boulton’s financial backing and the use of his company’s precision tools and machinery, Watt invented an entirely new steam engine based on a rotary engine with separate gears and his separate condenser. It was powerful, efficient, reliable, and allowed an operator to control its heat and speed.

(For CBC TV fans, Watt’s brilliant assistant who ingeniously developed new tools and ways of doing things was named William Murdoch.)

To sell his engines, Watt calculated that a mill horse could pull about 33,000 pounds of grain one foot per minute. His engine, however, could push 200 times that amount of grain per minute. He boasted, therefore, that his engine had the equivalent power of 200 horses. A unit of measure was invented that could be easily understood. Watt’s company could barely meet the demand for his 200 horsepower engines.

Bouton-Watt steam engines were soon pumping water from every mine in the country. More coal was extracted than ever before. Brewers used the engine to grind ingredients. Steam engines were soon powering cotton-spinning textile factories and flint mills. Giant steam-powered bellows allowed manufacturers to smelt more refined iron than had been previously imaginable. Steam-powered rolling mills produced better quality steel which was used to make better machinery, tools, and buildings. Every industry that switched from water and horses to steam saw their productivity explode.

It was not long before another English inventor, Robert Trevithick, adapted the steam engine to move wheels and, in so doing, created the first locomotive. In 1830, George Stephenson announced the Rocket. The Rocket was the world’s fastest and most powerful locomotive and was soon moving what had been previously considered unbelievable amounts of freight at unfathomable speeds, up to 36 miles per hour. The world’s first railway linked Manchester mills to Liverpool’s docks. From there, newly developed steam -powered ocean going ships made with steel from steam-powered foundries linked those docks to the world.

Britain’s economy boomed. In the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, it became the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of steel, iron, textiles, and coal. Iron alone increased its production by an astounding 2,500%. A circle was created where colonies provided raw materials and then the markets for finished products. With its far-flung colonies and secure trade routes all protected by its enormous navy, the steam engine and the industrial revolution it had unleashed saw Britain become the richest and most powerful empire of all time.

Like in all revolutions, the industrial revolution had winners and losers. The few, the less than one percent, grew enormously wealthy through controlling the import of sugar, cotton, and more from the colonies. Others owned or invested in the railways and shipping lines. A few owned or controlled the mills or as Marx would call them, the means of production.

And those growing mills, factories, ports, trains, and ships needed workers. Thousands left farms and obsolete village cottage industries. Former farm workers made more of the tractors that replaced them in the first place. Rapid urbanization saw many cities grow. London became the economic and cultural capital of the world with its population doubling in only fifty years to 2.7 million. People left relatively independent self-sufficient lives to live in deplorable conditions and, at work, act like the cogs in the machines they serviced. Author Charlotte Bronte wrote in Shirley: A Tale, “Misery generates hate: these sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them: they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”

People living in Africa, Asia, and the middle east, often against their own will, became under paid or sometimes unpaid workers that fed British wealth. The need for more textile material led southern American cotton plantation owners to buy more slaves and become so wealthy that, eventually, they thought they could split from the northern powers they never liked and create their own country. The ensuing Civil War killed 600,000 Americans.

Back in England, and in every other country that followed its lead into the industrial era, and for the first time, people cared about time. Farmers followed the sun and seasons. But factories didn’t obey nature, they conquered it. Nature’s time was defeated as workers had to show up at a particular time and were paid by the hour. There were regulated times for breaks, lunch, and going home. Trains had to run on time too and so schedules were created. The tallest feature in many cities and towns ceased to be church spires but the town clocks. For a long while, cities set clocks according to the sun, making schedules impossible to maintain until a Canadian, Sir Sanford Fleming, reworked the most fundamental part of our existence so that the new society that steam had created would work – he mapped out time zones and standardized time.

An education system was created to mimic factory hours and rules. The schools taught the factory mentality of rote learning and obedience to the boss. School was considered practical only if it rendered one better able to work. It was industrial revolution teaching for a determined purpose and not, as the Greeks had envisioned, learning to become a wiser person.

But most kids didn’t attend. Children had worked before but with the massive movement of people and the new, insatiable need for labour, more children than ever came to know 16 hours shifts in the harshest of conditions. The 1832 Sadler Committee Report described parents often being separated from their kids for months or even years at a time and children being denied education, suffering workplace physical and sexual abuse, and sustaining more injuries than adult colleagues due to chronic fatigue. The report said that it was impossible to accurately state the number of children under 10 who died every year on the job.

The burning of so much coal to operate the factories and heat the new homes in the growing cities blackened the sky. It filled lungs with soot and brought disease and death. The rich escaped to big estates outside the cities and far from what radical Christian William Blake called in his poem Jerusalem, “dark satanic mills.” Ironically, many schools, those relics of industrial age educational organization, still maintain Jerusalem as their school song.

The world’s first seismic change, the agrarian revolution, began about four thousand years ago when it was discovered that one could grow food instead of chasing it. Farming made land the world’s most valuable resource and so the world’s richest people were those with the most of the stuff. They were called different things in different societies but in Britain, Lords controlled the land and the King, who owned the most land, controlled the Lords. The industrial revolution meant that the richest people were suddenly those who didn’t own the land but controlled the factories. American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest people of the industrial age, in fact, one of the richest people ever, understood the change and how it had happened. He tipped his hat to James Watt by writing a biography of the Scottish inventor.

The world’s scientists understood too. Watt’s enduring influence in having created a new form of power is remembered each time you turn on a light or power-up nearly anything. A unit of power equal to one joule per second is called a watt.

A number of factors cause change and one of the most significant can be a single invention. Inventions are not discoveries. To discover something is impressive but is essentially noticing what already existed. To have noticed black holes in space was not to invent them. James Watt invented the steam engine and what that invention wrought changed the world. Although the industrial revolution is over, given way to the new information age, sparked by a new invention, its effects remain with us today in ways we seldom even think about.

I bet you showed up on time this morning. And meanwhile, in Compton, the pump keeps right on pumping.

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Small Kids – Big Lessons

A while ago I was asked to lead a full-day program on the 1960s for the Peterborough Centennial Museum. The call caught me in a good mood and I believe museums are an essential part of our communities that deserve support and so I agreed. As the March Break date approached, I wondered what I had done to myself.

Last Friday morning, I stood before 21 kids, aged 5 to 11, with the squirming, giggling, wrestling lot of them exploding with energy. By day’s end – harried, tired, but still smiling – I was surprised by what I had learned.

Colouring: Among the best selling books right now are adult colouring books. Adults have come to understand the meditative peace derived from keeping between already drawn lines and the absence of technology. Kids have always understood.

I began the day with a brief introduction and the application of washable ‘60s tattoos. Thank goodness for the dollar store. I then noted that many people in the ‘60s chose new names. They each picked a page from the Flowers and Animals colouring books I had purchased and cut up and were soon transformed into Hibiscus, Fox, Tulip, and more. The oldest boy didn’t want to play until I assured him that the seahorse he had picked for his hippy name could be sea monster – with a grin, he was in. And then they coloured. I marvelled at their scrunched noses and furrowed brows as they silently scribbled and shaded with not a screen in sight.

Diversity: Throw a net over a random group of 21 adults and you would nab the same range of personalities as my young charges. When split into groups for various activities there were clear leaders and troublesome narcissists. I watched the gravitation toward those seeking a consensus and the rejection of the ego-driven and bossy. There was smart but shy. There was a bully. Mostly there were fun lovers – eager to risk playing and suspending belief, being goofy, and making new friends.

Kids arrive at school and to the museum that day as we arrive at work. Like us, they tote all the baggage, good or ill, from home. They bring their maladies and anxieties, fears and dreams, and ever-shifting concepts of self. Like a boss at work or teacher at school, I knew I was not one person. For the 21 of them, I was 21 people.

Fairness: Like us, kids intuitively understand power and recognize injustice. Also like us, they swallow the stress of powerlessness when unfair things that should be changed are not. Ask those in a Donald Trump crowd. Ask those repulsed by Donald Trump crowds.

I explained that in the 1960s, a lot of people protested things they thought unfair. Their brainstorming was cute and revealing. Kids shouldn’t have bedtimes, shouldn’t have to go to school, and should be able to have as much candy as they want. One girl said adults should never be mean. Another said grownups should not be allowed to yell. The ideas flew, the leaders led, and they finally determined their cause and slogan: Everything Free For Kids!

The charged up lot were quickly on the floor plying markers and stickers to create their protest signs. They practiced their chant and then marched upstairs to the museum staff area: Everything Free For Kids! Everything Free For Kids! They burst into the offices and circled desks to smiles and applause. I didn’t ask how many of them actually pay for anything.

Everything Free For Kids

Kenzie Leads the Protest (Photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Forbidden Pleasures: I wanted the kids to leave thinking that museums are cool. In the morning, I led a tour of the permanent collection but after lunch, to show that museums preserve as well as display, I’d arranged a tour of the warehouse of artefacts that are locked up and closed to the public. I gathered the kids in a tight circle, got down low, and whispered that if they really wanted, we could go to a secret place, a place nobody ever sees, a place where kids are forbidden. Who is interested, I asked. Guess.

With hands in pockets or folded “grumpy-like” over chests, we moved slowly through the aisles of towering shelves of artefacts that resembled Heaven’s Costco. Their oohs and ahs told me when to stop and tell a story. How could a family have only one telephone and turn that wheelie-thing to dial? How could people sit before those big radios and just listen to shows and not watch anything? How could people actually wear those hats? And then my question at the end: When you are old like me, do you think there will be kids looking at your toys and clothes in a museum like this?

Music: When performing with my little rock ‘n’ roll band, I always watch for people singing along with particular songs. Sweet Caroline, improbably, is a hit with everyone. Spirit in the Sky always sparks dancing. What is true at the Canoe and Paddle Pub was also true with kids at the museum. The Beatles transcend generations.

After reading a couple of stories and talking about the Canadian flag created in the 1960s, the kids designed new flags with more symbols. With guitar in hand I sang the Beatles Yellow Submarine. They all knew it! Every one of them! We used the tune and symbols we’d gathered to write a new national anthem and they were soon belting it out with such gusto it would have burst McCartney’s buttons.

The day was delightful. Maria, the Trent-Queen’s student, and Faryn, who runs the museum’s education programs, and Susan with the artefacts (even a cup and saucer from the Titantic!) were invaluable. The kids were great. They left with tie-dye t-shirts, arms full of crafts, and faces awash with peace signs, stars, and flowers. Nearly all said a smiley bye, and there were some hugs and a few thanks.

As I rubbed my eyes and stretched my back I thought that I have no idea how much elementary teachers earn but whatever it is, they deserve a raise.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. For a few more pictures of the day and a brief clip of the protest march, click here: http://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/2016/03/19/march-break-campers-feeling-groovy

Teachers, the Taught, and F*#k Week

Fuck Week taught me well. You see, the first school at which I taught was for teenagers troubled by significant difficulties with learning, families, or the law. Many others were newly arrived immigrants suffering the effects of bad education systems or culture shock. Most kids were great but fights, gangs, weapons, and threats were commonplace. And there I was, fresh from teacher’s college and only about five years older than my charges.

By the end of the first month I had grown weary of the word fuck being used as verb, noun, adjective, and, most commonly, punctuation. I made a deal with a grade 12 class that if they could erase the word from our classroom for four days straight there would be pizza and music on Friday. It took several weeks, but a Friday finally celebrated booming bass, greasy hands, and wide smiles. While cleaning up I suggested that next week we could try eliminating the word shit. An earnest boy asked, “Sir, does that mean we can say fuck again?”

Teacher, the Taught and F#*k Week..

(Photo: www.uni.edu)

The question taught me the power of humility and importance of small victories. Reflecting upon that lesson brings to mind two men who played significant roles in my career. A sage and inspirational leader named David Hadden once told the story of a father urging a lost son to find his way home. The son confessed that he lacked the strength to make the whole journey. Don’t worry, assured the father, go as far as you can, I will meet you there, and we’ll complete the journey together. Another of my mentors, John Potts, once observed: “The most important thing to remember when you’re working with kids is that you’re working with kids.”

Beyond those important ideas, my years have also taught me this:

  1. Essence

New technology and pedagogy that enhance teaching and learning should be sought and welcomed. However, a group of teenagers in a room with an adult in 1980 is, at its core, the same as a group of teenagers in a room with an adult today. Blackboards to smart boards, encyclopaedias to Google, and binders to laptops don’t matter. Never confuse the art with the tools. Relationships and reciprocal respect are what counts. In fact, they are all that counts. True, valuable learning only happens when they are present and is never possible when they’re not.

  1. Fads

Early in my career I had Grade 11 students learn to write, research, and create persuasive arguments by learning to write an essay. After a few years the education ministry in our province determined that all students needed to complete an independent study. I had my kids write an essay. Then, it was decided that students needed to complete a cumulative assignment. I had them write an essay. Then teachers were told to flip their classrooms so students would learn certain tasks at home while allowing for in-class support and collaboration. I had them write an essay. Teachers need to embrace positive change and base their pedagogy on established and current research. However, they must also trust and be allowed to trust their professionalism to avoid surrendering to transient fads, authors, or obfuscating vocabulary.

  1. Fun

Anyone who believes that teaching does not involve entertainment understands neither. Teachers must always allow kid’s voices to be heard more than theirs. However, teachers still call the shots and set the tone so while curiosity and questions must be the two-lane road down which every lesson travels, fun should be the vehicle. Without fun, kids may memorize but not really learn. They will attend but not engage. Teachers must always take their jobs seriously but never themselves. Their training should involve comedy and improv workshops.

  1. Partnership

Teachers are an essential part of the education of a young person but only one part. Parents are a crucial part of the team. Further, in every good school, everyone, whether typing letters, mopping floors, keeping accounts, or providing administrative leadership know they are serving students. Students win only where we/they and leaders/led are absent from language and perspective, where characters and character are celebrated, and where all adults respect the hard work done by all others while sincerely seeing themselves as members of one team.

My career has taken me from that tough inner-city vocational school to what is widely accepted as among Canada’s finest independent boarding schools. I am proud to have contributed to one and of my continuing contribution, albeit outside the classroom now, to the other. Along the way I have reinforced my conviction that all lives are better in a society of readers, critical thinkers, and life-long learners. We all benefit through sharing a basic understanding of our culture, geography, and history. A country is better and democracy stronger when young people are instilled with an intellectual curiosity that burns insatiably throughout their lives.

If any of this rings true, then this is equally true: teaching is a honourable profession. It is an invaluable profession. Teachers are honourable people. Let us celebrate the best and encourage the rest because all children are our children.

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Leadership and Narcissism

Leadership and Narcissism

The Canadian election is over and the American presidential campaign is heating up. Justin Bieber’s adolescent petulance has again made headlines and pictures of celebrities in Halloween costumes have been spamming my Twitter account. CEOs at Volkswagen, a couple of banks, an oil company, and those running Soccer’s FIFA World Cup have been behaving badly. Perhaps it is an appropriate moment to consider narcissism.

The word derives from the Greek legend of a handsome young man named Narcissus who fell so head over heels in love with himself that he devoted days to gazing longingly at his reflection in a pool. He eventually died and was transformed into the flower called narcissus.

Narcissism

(Photo: http://www.barrett.com.au)

In 1914, Sigmund Freud used the legend to discuss the problem of excessive self-love. In the 1970s, University of Chicago’s Heinz Kohut deepened our understanding by writing that all children have a grandiose sense of self and see others as merely pawns. Due to a trauma they may not recall, and may not have even been a negative experience, some people never move past that stage. Kohut dubbed the result a narcissistic personality disorder.

Those suffering from the disorder, he wrote, do not suffer at all. They thrive. They revel. They strut. They succeed and they celebrate. They are aware of their inflated sense of self while carefully calculating their interactions with others to advance careers that they see as their due. A narcissist is completely and sincerely convinced that their opinions are superior to all and so their world – be it a particular organization or company or even the broader arts, business, or politics – will be improved if others just got out of their way. A 2004 Harvard Business Review article noted that executives at Oracle described CEO Larry Ellison like this: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

A narcissist always makes a good first impression because he is irresistibly charming, witty, and confident. It’s an easy act because his life is a performance. He is often a loving spouse and parent, for example, as it allows yet another demonstration of his ability to master difficult tasks. He often gets things done at work because he swiftly clears aside obstacles whether they are people or established practices. If caught doing something unwise or illegal, critics are dismissed as jealous or mindless ‘haters’ and rules or laws as merely misguided impediments. Narcissistic leaders are capable of shoe shuffling mea culpas but privately smile at critics and criticism as bothersome bumps on the road constructed by poor souls who will eventually understand that all will be better when they are allowed back on the bridge with only their hands on the tiller. Consider Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton.

Washington University’s Erica Carlson writes that it is this combination of self-awareness and refusal to accept criticism or consequence that results in narcissists never believing that they need to change. Narcissists are incapable of change. The world must change to suit them and not the other way around. Consider Kanye West even before he announced that he would run for president.

Not all leaders are narcissists and not all narcissists are leaders. But, according to Dr. Thomas Paine, narcissists are overwhelmingly represented in leadership positions in sports, entertainment, politics, and business. Paine warns us to watch for a leader who is a charming conversationalist but always brings talk back to himself or his preferred topic. Watch for a leader who surrounds himself with sycophants and banishes those with long corporate memories and others who challenge his views or goals. Look out for the leader who can feign empathy but whose goal-driven actions aggrandize himself and his personal metrics of success while revealing no genuine concern for the feelings or even the lives of others. Watch for the leader who smiles at adversity with the confidence that he will weather all storms and emerge triumphant. Most importantly, he warns, watch for leaders who value their success more than that of the organization they lead. Consider Donald Trump.

Narcissism is more important than the Beibs or Kardashians. It is more important than measuring your personal rate of selfies per hour. Our intersecting worlds of culture, business, and politics matter a great deal and so the slippery slope from confidence to arrogance to narcissism among some of our leaders in each world matters. In fact, it is crucial.

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Your Circle of Loyalty and Responsibility

We are the enlightenment’s willing slaves. It began when a number of 17th century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently and with variations on a theme argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion was perfectly fine until the trenches of the First World War, extermination camps of the Second, and then, more recently, climate change’s dreadful reality suggested that perhaps positive progress is not so inevitable after all. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line. Perhaps Aboriginal philosophy, the spiritualism that existed long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and his cohorts insisted they were wrong, were on to a more fundamental and enduring truth. Maybe it’s all about circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Native North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in Native circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

It's All About Circles

(Photo: http://www.dreamstime.com)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Americans and Canadians are now embroiled in political decision-making. The air is smudged with attacks and promises and the media is focused on tiny, distracting issues while portraying the elections as horse races. The options being presented by the various candidates and parties are really asking voters to consider circles of loyalty and responsibility.

Some are saying we should be loyal only to our immediate families and ourselves. Everyone of a different class, race, region, or nationality be damned. Others are arguing that we should feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country with those outside its borders on their own. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kicked down the ladder. Still others go further. They argue that we are human beings who share the planet and so should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all, including Earth itself.

When boiled to its essence, the American and Canadian elections are proving that the enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that aboriginal spirituality is right because it is really all about circles. It is about the size, the volume if you will, of our personal circles. So where do you draw your circle of loyalty and responsibility?

Consider that question when you hear a candidate speak of building a fence or helping to save Syrian refugees, supporting those who deny gay or women’s rights or those trying to extend them, propose we all pay a little so we can all be healthier or pay for only ourselves. Think of those using dog whistle code words such as “True Americans” or “Old Stock Canadians.” Where is their circle? Where is yours?

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Redemption Earned and Denied

Every novel, play, movie, and TV episode is the same. From Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones they all have three parts. The first act introduces the protagonist and the major conflict he needs to address. The second finds him torn down by difficulties he either creates himself or has visited upon him. The protagonist digs deep into his psyche, revisits what truly matters, recommits to that in which he once believed, and reinvents himself. If the work is done sincerely and well, the third act finds him stronger than ever, at one with his true self, and with redemption earned. The cowboy rides into the sunset, lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, and the mother and child hug as the last page is turned, the curtain falls, or the screen fades to black.

American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He was suggesting that Americans want to avoid the hard work of existential angst and introspection. Instead, they seek short cuts from the first to third acts. Fitzgerald observed, “The tragedy of these men was that nothing in their lives had really bitten deep at all.” They want rewards without cost, rights without responsibilities, and redemption without reflection.

Sadly, too many examples afford credence to Fitzgerald’s observation. Consider Richard Nixon. He used dirty tricks to win the presidency in 1968 and again 1972. He then illegally spied upon and attacked enemies whom he considered anyone who disagreed with him or his worldview. He treated questions as disloyalty, senior staff as attack dogs, the constitution as an annoyance, and those he was there to serve as saps. Watergate was unique only because he got caught.

After resigning in disgrace, he tried to ignite his third act by writing a number of books but it didn’t work. In interviews and his memoirs, he admitted mistakes and regret for having let Americans down but insisted that Watergate was simply a low rent burglary that should never have destroyed a presidency. He could never admit that it was never really about the break in. Rather, the scandal centred upon the clumsy attempts to cover up and manage mistakes, his reckless disrespect for political culture and proper process, and his flaunting of the spirit as much as the letter of the law.

Americans instinctively recognized that Nixon was attempting to pull a Fitzgerald and skip from acts one to three. They had none of it. They have still not forgiven him. For Richard Nixon, there has been no redemption.

Redemption has no shortcuts. This is a tough truth. We have all done something for which we feel regret and perhaps shame. To move forward there is simply no option save entering the dark and difficult second act and then demonstrating, not just talking about, fundamental change. In January 2011, Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today, “We must fully recognize that we’ve done wrong; fully accept responsibility for having done it; determine never to do it again; apologize to those we’ve done it to (if appropriate); and resolve to aim at improving ourselves in the general direction of good.”

We can’t say we’re sorry if we don’t really mean it and it won’t matter anyway if we can’t or won’t change. We can’t fool others and, in the end, we can’t fool ourselves. After all, if a faulty steering wheel put us in the ditch, then saying sorry without fixing the wheel will have us off the road again in no time. We become childhood’s refugees, blaming colleagues, bosses, staff, parents, spouses, the stars, an interfering or absent God, and anything and anyone but ourselves. Our families, organizations, or companies, unfortunately and unfairly, pay the highest price for our obstinacy. In such circumstances we deserve to be removed from the driver’s seat through dismissal, divorce, social exile, or, in Nixon’s case, resignation.

For what it’s worth, I think Fitzgerald was wrong. I sincerely believe that most of us are willing and capable of undertaking a second act journey. Right now there are many among us struggling to rescue relationships, marriages, leadership positions, and ultimately themselves. Celebrate them. But watch warily. Those willing to do the work with humility and sincerity, and who are of sufficiently sound moral rectitude, will find old enablers and habits gone but ultimately see second act efforts rewarded with forgiveness earned and redemption deserved.

May we live and work with these people. May we be these people.

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