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Reflection 2017: Big Themes from Individual Choices

2017 - Time for Reflection

At the end of every project, we take time for reflection, during which we look for insights that will allow us to improve in the future. I like to do this with my life as well. I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, because improvement should be a year-round endeavor. But I am a fan of year-end reflection, to review what I learned from the past year and what I can do better in the next.

To say this has been an interesting year is to invoke the Chinese curse. Now I understand better than ever why interesting isn’t always a good thing. Like about half of us (plus 3 million), I started off 2017 deeply unsettled about our president in specific and our national judgement in general. The 2016 presidential election weighed heavily on my assessments of others and my reservations regarding our collective wisdom throughout 2017. This is a filter that did not fade following the emotional aftermath of the election.

This exercise in looking back has been a good one for me. I am now able to see a few patterns and themes, many of which started long before the last presidential election cycle, and all of which I can use to make better decisions in the years to come.

Fear vs Courage

A definition of courageOne of the biggest lessons for me from 2017 is regarding the battle of fear versus courage. My friend and mentor-from-a-distance, Suzanne Wade, calls this the battle of fear versus faith. I started off 2017 fearful, and that is not a familiar place for me. I hid from news for the last few months of 2016, and the beginning of the new year felt blighted, pessimistic. Then, on January 21, the women of the world gathered to march, wearing pink pussyhats and reclaiming respect and power, and I got my mojo back. I wasn’t marching that day – I watched the march in Chicago from a hospital window high above the park where the crowds gathered. And as I sat there with my mom, at the bedside of her husband who would die a month later, I remembered that giving in to fear and pessimism is an act of cowardice.

My 20/20 hindsight can see the myriad ways in which fear dominated 2017. There is absolutely no rationale that can justify the racist, sexist, elitist behaviors of Donald Trump. So why does approximately 30% of the country still support him? Fear. Fear of being wrong in the first place about Trump. Fear of becoming irrelevant (i.e., losing privilege they were historically able to count on). Fear of those who are different from them in looks, thoughts, and lifestyle. From ratcheting up tensions with North Korea to demonizing immigrants; from the Mueller investigation to Roy Moore, this was a year of fear-based decision-making, fear-mongering, and cowardice.

Like the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement was an act of courage. Insufficient to change the culture on its own, but a meaningful milestone. The defeat of Roy Moore was also an act of courage, but one that we will not be able to sustain unless we get behind issues that matter to Black women and families, and support Black women running for public office. In fact, every noteworthy act of courage this year was committed by women.

Lesson learned. In 2018 I will consciously, deliberately, daily, act from a place of courage and faith. I will rigorously reject fear and pessimism. And I will support other women even more energetically.

Selfishness vs Grace

I have long worried (and opined) that our culture is too selfish for its own good. I would like to have been wrong about this, but 2017 was perhaps the most selfish year on record. Not by everybody – I saw a lot of grace this year – but certainly among those in power. What is selfishness but a common form of narcissism? Just look at the word. To be “self-ish” is to be about the self more than about others. The recently passed tax legislation was the most self-ish economic move in a generation, and that is but one example of selfish behavior from those who were elected to represent the interests of the voters – the vast majority of whom struggle to reach or maintain middle class status.

But selfish also shows up throughout the populace. Those who would say “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter” are not denying that Blacks have a much harder life than the rest of us — they’re just claiming that their personal hardships are still more important. Instead of saying, “I can see how that would be terrifying to know that the color of your skin means you might die if you are pulled over for a traffic infraction or are caught running down the street,” the selfish drown out that conversation by shouting, “Well my life is hard too!! Don’t forget about me! Think about me first!” “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” are responses born out of selfishness.

Men who whine about not being able to be themselves at work anymore, for fear of being perceived as a sexual harasser, are being selfish. Instead of recognizing that somewhere around 50% of women have been abused in some way just because of gender, and that all women experience the institutionalization of preferred status for men, they demand their continued privileged status by claiming that addressing institutionalized gender bias is hurting them. Because, nobody wants their toys taken away – not even the kid who stole the toy in the first place.

Why do I feel that Grace is the opposite of selfishness? Because “self-less-ness” isn’t quite on the mark. I think it’s beautiful, in a Mother Theresa sort of way, but I don’t think “self-less-ness” gets us to the cultural change we need.

But Grace. Grace is about giving assistance without expectation of something in return, other than the common good. Grace is about kindness, and acting out of a sense of rightness. Grace is about recognizing that sometimes, we have something that we did not earn, and that we should be grateful for it while also ensuring that others can share in it as well. Thoughtfulness, openness to the experiences of others, and a desire for equality are all characteristics of grace. The person with grace is capable of thinking, “It’s not my turn right now. It’s been my turn in the past, and maybe it will be my turn again in the future, but in this moment, it’s not my turn.”

More grace in 2018. That’s a good plan.

Growth vs Decay

I saw this issue played out at the national level this year, but I also observed it at the industry and personal levels. We often credit the statement if you’re not growing you’re dying to Lou Holz, but the principle has been around for thousands of years. From ancient philosophers to the Bible, wise humans have long advised us to keep growing or risk decay.

Growth or Death - It's a Daily Choice

Fossil fuel companies are driving bad policy related to environmental rollbacks and disruption. Why? Because they aren’t working hard enough to figure out what’s next. Although everybody knows fossil fuel sources will run out and that extracting them hurts the environment — and often, the laborers who do the work — these companies cling to their current economic models, and as a result they decay from within, affecting everything from their morality to their economic sustainability.

Small business owners are discovering that they can either grow or go out of business. To be successful, a business owner must either embrace a future of continuous reinvention or die a slow (and sometimes, not so slow) death.

And at the heart of all this decay is people. Going back to the election last year, I’ve wondered time and time again, when did people stop thinking? Why don’t people seek facts, rather than reinforcement? Why do they willingly support behaviors that any broadly accepted moral code, and even their own religious practice, tells them is wrong? The most vital place to address the growth vs decay issue is not at the corporate or community level – it’s the self.

The self doesn’t naturally grow – it requires intention and effort. Decay can happen by accident. When I moved to Wisconsin nearly 10 years ago, and stopped my every day running around a 186,000 square foot building, my body paid the price of inertia. Later, I realized my own thoughts weren’t very interesting, as I was filling my downtime by reading news on my smart phone, instead of reading literature or more philosophical works. I was thinking entirely in current events, which isn’t really thinking at all. And one night several years ago, when I started to sing to my new grandson, I realized I could barely squeak out a song because it had been so long since I used my instrument. Music had been my life until my 30s, and somehow I had forgotten to sing for several years.

How many of us are running around not thinking, not learning, not practicing? That is where decay begins, and though it seems small, it results in massive tragedies, like the Fall of Rome, both World Wars, the Great Chinese Famine, the rise of fanatical fundamentalism, and the election of people like Donald Trump.

When I was in junior high, I became obsessed with The Interior Castle, written by St. Theresa of Avila. It was my introduction to the idea that an interior life was essential to a life well-lived. As an adult I have re-read the book many times, each time becoming more aware of how easy it is to let one’s interior life atrophy, and reinforcing my understanding that growth begins inside. 2017 reminded me of the importance of commitment to conscious growth, even when it seems exhausting, because the opposite is untenable. Plus, I need to get my weight down and my vocal range back.

Apathy vs Love

My dad likes to quote Elie Wiesel’s statement that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. It’s a potent motivator on those days when you just don’t have the energy to face the issues. Lately, I’ve been hearing people say, “I’m just so tired of caring so much. It’s exhausting.” But a life without convictions and passions is a life not lived (see above; growth vs decay).

A dear friend, now departed, once admonished me for being so political on social media. She was genuinely concerned that I would drive potential clients away because of my politics. I gave her concerns serious consideration, because I respected and trusted her. But ultimately, I continued sharing the things that matter to me, business-be-damned. Why? Because if I have to hide my beliefs to make money, then I’ve fallen on the side of apathy (and fear, and selfishness, and decay).

Perhaps more than any other shortcoming, apathy defines our current society. Unless an issue has direct and immediate impact on one’s self, home or paycheck, a plurality of people appears willing to ignore important topics that ultimately will affect them.

Of course, the hard part of committing to a life of love is that it must be applied to everyone. Just spend one day trying to see the face of God in everyone you meet, online or in person, and it’s clear that love is a radical sport.

Now, I don’t see love as a Pollyanna-ish thing. To me, good love, substantial love, readily coexists with argument, disagreement, and directness. Truth is often brutal, but it’s still love. I don’t think love has to come with sugar-coating or baby-talk. I don’t think we need to sell it when we love.

People who never talk about hard things, who don’t tell one another important truths, who don’t call out bullshit when they hear it, they’re not being kind to each other — they’re being apathetic. It’s much easier to get along superficially. Teflon isn’t love, it’s a poison.

From Reflection to Action

The more I think about 2017, the more I realize the state we are in now (for those of us who worry that we are in a state), is due to failures at the level of the individual. When we cruise through our lives excessively concerned with our selves, preserving our energy at the expense of the common good, gorging on gossip, drama, and near-news instead of thinking and learning, looking for approval and — even more insidious — approbation, we end up where we are now.  So, what did I learn from this review of 2017?

  • To cultivate Courage, because facing things head on leads to positive change.
  • To practice Grace, because people who live in communities must consider the wellbeing of the community.
  • To commit to personal Growth as if it is a workout that must make you sweat to be worth it.
  • To act out of Love, knowing that real love is neither passive nor easy.

I also know that I must attach these principles to every layer of my life. It’s not enough to Love at home, be Courageous at work, and practice Grace at when doing something charitable. I have to Love my community, commit to Growth at home, be Courageous online, and practice Grace at work.

2017 was a pretty tough year. But we arrived at this difficult time after years — maybe decades — of personal choices. So I’ve decided to own it, and invite others to join me. I won’t make bets on how fast we will change things, but I know that we can. And 2018 is as good a time as any to start.


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