My mentor and friend Bernie has been told by doctors that he has a year left to live. Thanks to Bernie, I’m now aware that I—like him—have a choice here. Each new day now, actually, I have this choice: will I choose Bitterness, Sweetness, or Bittersweetness as my companion today? Luckily, thanks to Bernie, I don’t have to face this choice alone anymore.
Bernie has been playing, studying play, learning about play, and writing about play since the 1960s (as an adult, that is—I’m sure kid-Bernie did more than his fair share of playing, he probably drove his folks nuts). It didn’t occur to me until just last week that I should search his ginormous and playful database of deep fun (Deepfun.com) for the word “bitterness.” But then I did. So I did. And I was stunned by what I learned. Which is this…
I learned that playing, studying play, talking about play, thinking about play, and writing about play and deep fun and all the ways in which they manifest themselves around the world is a damn fine way to spend your life. There is a Sweetness in Bernie’s life that shows up in my imagination as a small, slightly goofy, and often mischievous creature sitting just above his right, and sometimes left, shoulder. Sweetness is an angel and a devil combined, the dappled color of a turning fall leaf, and he whispers “Let’s play!” and “Oooo, let’s try that!” and “Come on, let’s go there!” into Bernie’s ear every day. How Bernie spends his time here—the playing and the studying and the talking and wondering and the writing—all these things do a remarkable job of keeping Bitterness from stepping into his life uninvited. All those decades of writing—writing practically every day, WOW—and it’s almost as if Bitterness was listening for places to enter, waiting for just the right moment, but very few Bitterness-warranting moments appeared. So he contentedly sat on his swing, swinging.
You see, in my imagination, Bitterness sits swinging on an old tire swing dangling down from a tree branch, watching Sweetness and Bernie race around the world, and Deepfun.com, like children playing tag at twilight. Bitterness is smiling, watching, patient, and waiting. Bitterness isn’t sinister: more like the introvert kid content and enjoying the solitary swing and happy to have the more rambunctious others just slightly farther away but still in plain view. Bitterness doesn’t need to step in much at all, because clearly Sweetness and Bernie have got this. Because Bernie listens to Sweetness most days, Bitterness knows that Bernie is ok. Bernie invites Sweetness in to play most days, or vice versa. So much so, that they’ve even started to look a little bit like each other. And some days now, I notice, it’s Bernie who is the dappled angel-devil creature sitting on Sweetness’ shoulder, not the other way around. (Bernie also married Rocky, who comes from strong Sweetness-embracing stock. Lucky, lucky Bernie.)
As I wade through his six decades of writing, I notice that Bitterness moved visibly onto the Deepfun.com playground just six times. Go and look and see. And wow. Each time Bitterness stepped in, it was to visibly demonstrate how to invite Bitterness in and how to play with Bitterness. Bitterness, I learned, wants to play too. He’s just different. He’s not Sweetness. Not so easy to play with. Here’s a summary of what I learned. To get the full demonstration, search for “bitterness” yourself on Deepfun.com:
- October 13, 2003. In a post called “The Dancing Referee,” Bernie links to a video where we get to watch a man bring grace and exuberance to the difficult role/job/profession of sports (soccer, in this case) referee. Bernie notices “The officials are there, not to have fun, but to keep the way clear so that fun can be had by others. They allow the players to leave aside concerns about fairness and safety, so that they can focus everything, everything on the game. But refereeing is often a difficult role, one that leads to argument and bitterness, insult and injury. To find a space for joy in all this, to transform yourself from an official to a performer, requires courage and commitment and deep enjoyment. It kind of makes you think that anyone, regardless of role or position or function or job, can find fun, if fun is what that person is ready to find.” He ends by reflecting on a sport that doesn’t require referees (Ultimate Frisbee asks players to be their own referees) and on one that does, saying “To understand fun, we must find ways to celebrate both.” Celebrate both even though I’m not a fan of both? Hmmm. Deep fun, indeed.
- May 13, 2008. In a short post called “Pangea Day,” Bernie shares a link to a movie in which people reimagined a border wall into a volleyball net. Hmm. So Bitterness and fun belong together? Even in the presence of the worst humanity has to offer? Hmmm.
- June 28, 2008. In a post called “Sneaky Fun,” Bernie shares a link to a site designed primarily for people feeling bitter at work. People who work at computers, that is. The site transforms the Internet (a virtual place where people sneak away from tedious real-world work to explore and play) and makes the Internet look like a boring Word document on your monitor, so that you can sneak in a bit of fun under your bosses’ noses. Helping the Bitter at work be a bit naughty? I love it.
- April 25, 2011. In a piece called “Backstory,” Bernie talks about getting overwhelmed by the world and its cruelty and messes. “I want to rant and rail, to make sounds of fury, to bite the bullet of bitterness and spit it in the face of stupidity, in the hands of brutality, in the eyes of cruelty and stuff.” Damn. Wish I’d written that. And he follows that with writing down his own purpose so he can more fully look at it—simultaneously giving the world something better to read about themselves: “I write these posts to help make things a little more fun. That’s exactly, precisely what I’m here for. Fun for me, for you, for anybody who isn’t finding enough light to delight in their days… For me, play is a political act. This is what I truly believe. Playing, celebrating everything with everybody, anybody. It’s as revolutionary as a protest song, as government changing as a rally. For me, fun is healing, is health made manifest. Body health, social health, mental health, soul health.” As he writes, I think to myself “Play is an act of revolution, and clearly I’m all in.” And suddenly the whole world, and Bernie, and I are so beautiful that it makes me cry. Dammit Bernie. When did Sweetness jump onto my shoulder?
- October 20, 2015. In a post called “Elder Fun,” Bernie plays with a distant friend recovering from a stroke, demonstrating how to let go of old patterns of fun to embrace new patterns and deeper fun as we age. Fun and Bitter. Bitter and Fun. Hmmm.
- May 8, 2017. At this point, Bernie and Sweetness are living with the reality that he has less than a year to live in this beautiful, beautiful world of ours. And so am I. After reading his essay, “Play a little, talk a little, play a little, talk a little, play, play, play, talk a lot, play a little more,” (Damn, dude, your headlines just keep getting better) in the comments following the post, a friend describes the piece as “Bittersweet.” After so many years of watching Bernie and Sweetness play together, Bitterness himself, it seems, has been transformed. Finally confident that he will be invited to play, he steps onto Bernie’s own page now, feeling mostly lucky and just a tad regretful, saying “Thank you, friends, you’ve changed me. I’d like to join you in the fun. But please, call me by my true name: Bittersweet.”
And so we welcome Bittersweet into our play—a rag-tag group we are, fond of fools and filled with accidental genius—playing tag and giggling again, as glorious and warm and present now as Twilight herself.
P.S. Speaking of swings and playgrounds, Bernie has gotten a lovely company to donate some really cool swings to his local park, but they need $4,500 for the installation. If you have a little extra money, consider donating it to this most playful of causes. Go here for more details: http://www.deepfun.com/gift-family-community/.
Bas did a really brave thing this week.
And given that he is so beautifully Dutch–reserved and humble and whatever the opposite of self-centered is—he would never toot his own horn about this. But I’m an American, dammit. My friend deserves a bit of frickin’ horn tooting.
For years, Bas researched, wrote, spoke, and breathed project management. He worked as a PM. I’m certain that he got things done more efficiently and better and faster and all those other things PMs care about. And his blog, the Project Shrink, was very popular in PM-land. He had those thousands and thousands of followers that most other bloggers secretly long for.
But he grew weary of his expertise. Tired of the PM box he’d built for himself.
Over the past few years, Bas has been moving in new directions: trying on different hats.
His Project Shrink blog eventually became Shrinkonia, the name of his own created-via-imagination country, as he embraced more of his true, PM-box-smashing self.
He’s been Project Ethnographer. Story Home Builder. Geographer-at-Large. Story Wrangler. And Writer that Draws.
And all the while, he’s been studying and talking about what he himself is doing: from the struggle to answer the question “what do you do?” to letting go and savoring transitions, from storytelling to map making, from identity crises to recovering your sense of direction.
Growing ever more playful, lately he’s also been Wile E Coyote. Metaphor Man. Faux Travolta. And The Guru. And my personal two favorites—At Dawn We Ride guy and fellow wandering Chicken Pirate—both of whom feel most like the fun, smart, brave spirit that I spend time with and know best.
His shadow side shows up too. Often in Darwin, his snarky blog who calls him a Hippie and Sherlock and Sparky, lest he get so far out into woo-woo land that he can’t ever catch the boat back to Normalsville.
I don’t think anyone has told him yet that that ship has sailed.
Personally, I keep waiting for the day The Dude shows up, a version of Bas from one of his favorite movies.
But I digress.
Everything that Bas has been doing the past few years is brave. However, what happened this week is bravery of the highest degree.
Bas removed all of the PM books and PM talks from his Web site.
Those last links to his former professional self.
By his own hand.
In Lori Land, bravery doesn’t get much more impressive than this.
This is believing that your world will reward you, eventually, for being the real you.
This is believing in your quirky self and quirky ship mates, even in the face of your fears.
And despite the fact that what you’re doing is so very different from what the rest of the world seems to be doing. And what the old you did.
Believing even in the face of your own loud and snarky shadow-side voice. Walking away from the boxes of the corporate world, the boxes that you yourself helped build and that you yourself must tear down. Walking away from dreary work that you know people will pay you for toward creative play/work that far fewer people may recognize as valuable, at least at first.
This is walking your walk.
Dancing your dance.
Disco-ing your duck.
When people learn what I do for a living, and that my creative partner lives on a different continent, many ask me how Bas and I met and how we ended up working together.
I usually tell the long story, as is my way, that involves him writing about my blog, new-blogger-me being so thrilled that I offered to do his laundry for him, and how we started talking regularly via our blogs until we decided to work together on our first book.
I now see the shorter story.
I knew the moment I met Bas that he was doing exactly what I was trying to do: creating worlds in which who we really are—the whole quirky, smart, oddball us—is terrific. And documenting the journey as we go in case our experience proves useful to others.
Together, it seems, we’re finding those worlds. First Shrinkonia, then Lori Land, and now Oddball Empire: a whole real world of quirky, brave souls that were here all along, patiently waiting for us to trust ourselves completely, do what we’re called to do, and join the fun.
My advice now for anyone trying to find Oddball Empire is simple…
Find the person who hears your crazy story for getting there, jumps on the tricycle next to yours, tilts his/her paper hat into the wind, and shouts “At Dawn We Ride!” Stick together.
Everything else you can invent as you go.
Reading a human mind across great distances is easy for some. I have friends who do it all the time.
As near as I can tell, we need just three things to do it: dear friends, silliness, and our true self. Pain also works, but I recommend silliness over pain when you can swing it, which you often can with dear friends, I’m learning.
At some point, friendship + silliness (or pain) + your true self = knowing each other’s hearts. And when we know each other’s hearts, and trust each other completely, it’s only a matter of time before unbelievably cool things begin to happen. Mind reading is just the tip of the iceberg.
So let me tell you about three dear friends of mine: Bernie, Natalie, and Bas. I love these humans. Writers all. Silly all. Perfect playmates for me all.
I haven’t met them in person yet. I’ve known all of them for roughly 1 1/2 years. None of them live close to me: Bernie, at 2,200 miles (~3,600 kms) away is the closest, while Bas, at 7,900 kilometers (~4,900 miles) lives the farthest away. They aren’t my only friends who read my mind recently, but they are the three who did so from the farthest distance, which makes them Olympics-level champions at mind reading. And they are all people with whom I feel 100% free to be myself. Not my day-job self (not that I have one of those anymore) but my whole, true, silly, fun, frustrating-at-times, wending, messy self.
I noticed this year that sometimes these people read my mind. Sometimes they appear to feel what I need—before I can recognize what I need—and they’ll share just what I need, just as I need it. All of them have anticipated a difficulty for me and taken steps that smoothed my way. They’ve all taught me what I needed to learn, just when I need to learn it. I am amazed by this ability and can’t say much about it (ha! yeah right) except that it very much appears to be more a function of heart than of head.
That, and it feels like magic. It makes me feel 6 years old again, back when I could believe in magic because I could feel it.
Let’s skip to the examples.
My beloved Bernie invited me to join a Google+ group this past month, saying “this group is a “little” “heady” – but I thought you might enjoy and perhaps give it some soul.”
That week, I’d begun quietly removing myself from many “heady” Facebook and Google+ groups—that is, groups in which the vast majority of what goes on is talking about, debating, and arguing about theories. “Too much head, and not enough heart and soul” had been in my mind as I decided which groups to leave, although I love Bernie’s shortening this thought of mine to “heady.” I didn’t tell Bernie that I was doing this. I didn’t tell anyone. And I haven’t pulled myself out of a single group that Bernie is part of, so he couldn’t have witnessed it. But there he was, telling me to improve a heady group by giving it a little time and bringing it the soul it needed. Wow. I joined the group he recommended and decided to stick with one of the groups I’d been about to leave a while longer. He’s right. They need me.
Then there’s Natalie.
As my heart was quietly breaking over the life-threatening illness of our dear dog Grady in mid December, she prompted her talented artist daughter, Frankie Blue, to make me this avatar.
I love it. And it came at such a perfect time I couldn’t quite believe it.
Later, near the end of December, in my own mind I made the decision that we would need to put Grady to sleep. He hadn’t eaten a meal of his own volition in almost 5 weeks. He’d dropped from 53 to 39 pounds, despite the fact that we were syringe feeding him more calories a day than he used to eat. He began to lose the ability to walk. Nobody knew of this painful thought in my head, not even my husband Daniel, because it was too hard to give voice to.
So I was feeling alone, beyond sad, and in a stunned, helpless place that meant I wanted to speak to no one and do almost nothing. I felt wretched. I knew I’d be saying goodbye to one of my dearest friends of the past 12 years in the coming week. I felt horrible for making the decision at all and also horrible for not making it sooner. On December 29th, beyond hanging out with Grady, I had energy for just one thing: I read Facebook to see what some of my favorite humans were up to.
And I found this list, created that day by Natalie, for me, apparently completely out of the blue.
This gave me the courage to talk to Daniel about Grady being ready to move on. Without words exchanged, and from the opposite corner of the country, Natalie’s heart knew that mine could really use this right that moment. Wow.
And then there’s Bas: my creative partner-in-crime who has rapidly become a new best friend this year.
From The Netherlands, Bas so often reads my mind and anticipates my needs that for me it now feels like a completely commonplace state of being for humans who live on different continents. He shares links to articles almost the moment I think to myself “Hmm, maybe I should read about that.” He uses new-to-me words that feel like they were just on the tip of my brain, waiting for me to say them out loud: this fall, words like the slow web and transplanetary storytelling. He shares ideas that I recognize as mine the moment I hear them: “Maybe we should call Different Office a creative co-op?” (I’d thought this weeks prior but failed to tell him about it before he thought it too.) This fall, when I was freaking out because roof patch repair folks accidentally trapped four baby squirrels in our attic (while Daniel was away on business, of course), Bas and Simone (his fantastic wife) worried across vast distances about stressed-out me and mama squirrel and her babies. They sent us music to sooth our souls. It worked. It took 18 hours–the last few of which we were all rocking out instead of stressing out–but we got all four babies reunited with mom.
So how do you read a mind across thousands of miles/kilometers?
I know it has everything to do with being dear friends, being silly together, sharing your pain, and sharing your self to the extent you possibly can. I know it has something to do with profound trusting of your friends, your self (at least for a moment), and the nature of the universe (again, at least for a moment)–a trust so profound that it lives beyond individual thoughts and the skeptism of grown-ups-ville. And I know we don’t control it in the traditional sense. We don’t think our way into it exactly. We believe in each other, we care for each other, we give our attention gladly to each other, and somehow we make and find space for the amazing to show up and happen.
I don’t think we learn how to do this at all. I think we wake up and remember that we can. We unlearn that we can’t. We remember the existence and the power and the sass and the amazingness of the 6-year-olds still within us, always within us. Turns out, those 6-year-olds are still holding hands.
For more perspectives on the subject, consult your own 6-year-old self and the people you are silly with. You could also maybe ask Bernie, Natalie, or Bas if the mood strikes. They may call me crazy, but from my perspective, they are all old hats at this.
Community member Emergent by design asked this question today. Love her. Love the question too. I began writing a comment and found that my comment just kept getting longer and longer until I thought to myself “It would be rude to add a comment this long to a discussion. This is a blog post.” So Venessa, here’s my from-the-heart answer to your fantastic question.
Short answer: From my perspective, it’s much easier to become living proof that we are trustworthy, together, than it is to try to live and trust without proof on our own. That is, I don’t leap from a scared individual state to a state of unconditionally trusting all living beings on my planet. I can, but it’s not sustainable. So I baby-step it from individual, to small self-organizing groups, to community, to culture, and into the space between. Until I notice that the proof for trust is me, is us. We are trust. We are our own proof.
My story (hopefully more practical and less “woo woo” than my short answer)
I experienced unconditional trust within a self-organizing work group at Microsoft. A year into our time together, I experienced many other people unconditionally trusting me, because they trusted the self-organizing group I was part of (and vice versa). They even saw positive attributes within me that weren’t actually in me as an individual (articulate public speaker comes to mind: that was actually a group attribute, I suck at it). Eventually, other divisions began trusting our division in slightly new ways. Our division reorganized itself as a result. Those of us at the core of this group had gotten so close as people that we could take individual actions and make individual decisions that somehow just worked together. We could take what was happening (good or bad) in any moment and make it feel as if we’d planned it to happen. It totally rocked. And suddenly the thing we’d been working so hard toward didn’t even really matter to me anymore. Because I was surrounded by close friends.
Now mind you, this was at Microsoft: the competitive, male-dominated, trust wasteland (or so I’d thought) where I began my journey toward unconditional trust by being unconditionally trusted by group members and then an ever widening circle of others. When I quit, these dear friends announced that they’d be getting WWLD? bumper stickers, made us margaritas (despite a snowstorm that kept most Seattle-area Microsoftees at home), and smilingly presented me with a $56,000 bill for all the extra server space my long-winded emails required. I cried all the way home, mourning that I wouldn’t see them every day anymore.
I left there to study self-organizing groups and work groups. Trying to understand the nature of self-organizing groups. Each group I studied and was part of changed me. You cannot study a self-organizing group unless you are part of the group, trusted by that group, moving in the world as the group, if only for a brief time. These groups changed what I could see and how fluidly I could move in the world. As a researcher, about 20 groups in, I started trusting all complete strangers within self-organizing groups instantly. Also, I began trusting strangers most days. It felt weird. Naive. Stupid.
One day I recognized that I was now studying community: a whole new thing I couldn’t see before because I hadn’t fully, consciously experienced it before. About 40 groups/communities in, I stopped counting and ditched the spreadsheets. Goodbye “Researcher” and hello “Community Story Wrangler.” The people I want to spend time with will actually like the real, story-rich, spreadsheets-suck me. I began gathering community stories. I began to recognize that what I uniquely had to give had deep value for my world.
In January, as I gathered stories for a book–including David Hodgson’s story (at the Hub, a coworking space in San Francisco)–I realized that I’m no longer satisfied with unconditional trust “most days” and “most people” anymore. I want unconditional trust all the time. The idea to turn our home into a community space then showed up.
In late February, our home became a free community coworking space one day/week. Every Wednesday, at 10 a.m., we unlock our door and it stays unlocked until at least 7 p.m. Some days 10 people show up. Today, it’s just me, the dog, three cats, and one community member who stopped by to harvest strawberries for his new bike-based homemade popcicle delivery service.
In 4 months, I’ve learned that trusting strangers–by their very nature–are 100% trust worthy. Every human that has taken a risk, and walked through our door, is, in that instant, trusting and therefore trustworthy. And another cool thing about making the space free is that people also show up generous, bearing gifts “Here’s some tea!” “Do we need coffee? I’ll bring some!” “I could edit your book!” and “How are you set for toilet paper?”
A total stranger asked me if he could bring us toilet paper. Holy shit.
Two weeks ago, in my supposedly “rough” urban neighborhood, when I stepped back inside from talking to a neighbor, one coworker was reading Rumi poetry out loud to everyone else. It brought tears to my eyes. And mine weren’t the only ones.
In the past 3 months, three coworkers have offered/are considering opening their homes as complimentary free coworking spaces as well (one for people with kids, one for people with cat allergies, and one for people south of Seattle). Um, wow. Didn’t see that coming.
We’re now part of the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance (go coworkers, hackers, makers, and ALL collaborative space people!). This community is freaking amazing. Dozens of space holders who show up to help/be helped. Last week, two amazing new friends–Chelsea and Alex–from Office Nomads showed up here and helped me brainstorm better ways to let the community know about our space. I’m thinking about becoming a member of Office Nomads one day/week to get myself out of the house a bit more, but mostly to get to hang out with them. Office Nomads hired an anarchist to bring a little more order to their space! WOW. I swear I’ve never fallen in love with people so fast in my life. I’m thinking about sending them chocolates.
I’m learning that it’s not just unconditionally trusting strangers that is getting easier here, now, by the day. It’s actually falling in love with total strangers. Being so amazed by others that offering a gift to them is the only thing my little individual brain can remember to do.
I don’t claim to recognize this brand new world I’m living in now. I feel like Alice in Wonderland. When did this gift economy get here? Yesterday I was gifted two amazing Vee Gardens–one a birthday gift from a friend and another an impromptu surprise from the inventor/artist/creator himself after he heard I had a free community coworking space.
From my perspective, today as an individual I stress and struggle and flail and scream at the gianormous hole that humanity appears to have dug itself into. As community, though, we fall in love with total strangers, give each other gifts, and pull ourselves up together. Maybe we even build something amazing for all those who come next.
No, not maybe.
That’s what we’re doing right now.
This is Nils and Grant. They just made a 500-year table for our coworking space. Our community will eat and work and laugh around it after our great, great grandchildren are gone (great, great grand dogs in my case). And everyone who does will understand what I’m only just beginning to see. That proof that we should trust each other is absolutely everywhere too. It’s even in the chairs we’re sitting on and the table that we’re eating and working and laughing at together.
Bas and I spent the past 7 months playing/working to create a storybook together. And it’s now finished! Woo hoo! Read it for free here:
Optimized for the iPad, the book at the link above also works on smart phones and most browsers (Safari, Chrome, Firefox at the moment). Kindle people can also purchase the book for $0.99 (US) on the Kindle. Proceeds go to KIVA to help small business people on the road to work they love.
Please share the book with anyone you think could use it. Our marketing plan = relying on the abundance that is our communities.
Bas gets 100% credit for the fact that the book works in different places and devices, is easy to use and visually beautiful, and has audio and video woven into and co-telling many of the stories. On my own, written stories within a Word doc is as high-tech as I get. 🙂
I created the book because I knew it’d be fun to do, and I strongly suspected it’d be fun to work with Bas despite our 9-hour time difference and even though we’d just met.
I created the book for the stream of people in my life whose stories feel stalled in a loop of “I hate my job/employer/work” and who are trying to figure their way out of that loop. Friends. Family members. Community members. Neighbors. I wanted more stories than just my own to tell people, because my story doesn’t work for everyone.
When Bas and I started last fall, it didn’t occur to me that this book would be where I myself turn when I have a bad day. That these stories would help me fall asleep on the nights I think “What the hell am I doing? This is stretching me too far. This is crazy. I can’t do this!” Didn’t know that it would be these voices reminding me that I’m more than the scared little individual I sometimes imagine I am. That they’d remind me we are all more than we can imagine and make real on our own. I spend time with these stories to remember who I am. And to remember who we are together. And to watch myself say “Wow” again and again and again. As my dear partner Daniel said, “You say ‘Wow’ a lot!” Yes, I do. For me, that’s different work. That’s recognizing that you love the people you’re with right now. That I love the work I’m doing. Right. Now.
The e-book is a collection of stories from people who deeply love their work (most days). People who are working beyond their own “I Shoulds” and who are changing what work looks and feels like for themselves and their families, organizations, and communities. For example, bike messengers serving their neighborhood and honoring their own love of riding bikes. A rabbi, a pastor, and an imam who are best friends, working together, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. Several different independent consultants and speakers who love their work and their communities. An indie lounge pop duo listening to the creative muses within themselves. A non-profit CEO who helps others laugh out loud and battle addiction. A conflict mediator and an artist who love their work and each other. A businessman/avid learner making friends all over the planet through his love of learning. Factory workers free to become and do what they want. And more!
I was going to stop there. But I just read Bas’ blog post about the book, and he said that the book changed him. Actually, he said it twice:
This changed me.
So I’ll add this last part to my story here:
This work changed us.
As my friend Doug Nathan said in the book, doing work you love keeps you on your learning edge. As Chas said, beyond work, this is a LIFE-changing company for us. As the amigos said, we continue to go deeper into relationship, into friendship, into our stories and into what we believe. As Wendy said, it isn’t easy, but its worth it. It can add up to a really meaningful life. As Diaz said, most of the time, JOY is the last of it all.
In my own life now, there are still moments where my I Shoulds rule. Moments when the story I’m telling myself isn’t really my own story. Moments when work sucks.
But most days now, these moments are just that. Moments. A few seconds or minutes, nothing more. Most days I can even see these moments as the gift they are: points of potential closer connection between me and others. “My work $#%*!@ sucks!” used to be my story for weeks and even months at a time. That’s not my story anymore. This is.
Photo by Simone Peerdeman.
As of this May, I’ve spent 9 years working, living, and learning as self-organizing groups and community. What I noticed most this week is the astonishing courage demonstrated by individuals who have spent prolonged time within these human collectives: courage astonishing to themselves as well as others. Here are some examples. Because I know these people very well—they are my own community and self-organizing group members—I know that these examples demonstrate that the community and self-organizing group pulled courage out of these individuals that they themselves didn’t fully know they had within them. Pretty amazing to be present when this happens to a person. It actually gives me goose bumps. Listen to the honest, powerful, courageous voices I’ve heard this week. Note: Some of these may not sound courageous to you at all, but they were courageous for them in the moment. And yes, some of these are me. The longest-winded ones, of course, I’m so freakin’ transparent.
- In response to another community member getting emotional in a highly thinking- and debate-centered group: “I am impressed by your ability to own your emotions, voice your “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”s publicly, and to name fuckball actions fuckball when you see them. I have no advice for you. I am just now learning to do what you appear to do easily. So keep doing what you do to give others the courage to do the same. Whoops, that was advice. Meant it as request. Will you keep doing what you do so that those of us learning this can keep seeing it?”
- In response to another community member talking about his own purpose and wondering about the purpose of a large, chaotic community he’s part of: “We are a planet of small humans and happenings with hearts sized appropriately for our planetary selves. I don’t think I’m here to understand our purpose. I’m here to be reminded of who we really are and to get comfortable with the size of my heart and my self. It’s in the smallest random act of kindness and forgiveness that I learn the most.”
- In response to a group member making major life changes without keeping another friend in the loop: “You need to Skype or email me and tell me about this immediately! This is the kind of important thing you share with your wife from another life. Don’t make me go Karen Walker on you!”
- A white woman community member’s response to a male community member saying people should just “lighten up” about the recent bloody cake cutting images out of Sweden. “I first learned of the image through an African American friend who said that the photo of the cake being cut into made her cry and then tighten her fists in rage. I actually read her words, got a lump in my throat, felt my fists tighten, and had tears in my eyes before I saw the image itself. Was a black person making a cake or a statement about mutilation racism? No. Was the decision by powerful white people to laughingly, smilingly cut into it? YES. That action was like a knife into my friend’s heart (and her heart happens to be connected to my own). This hurt was not imagined. This hurt was real. Lighten up? Are you fucking kidding me?! Remind me to tell you that the next time somebody kicks you in the groin.”
- To her community, many of whom are neighbors, in a politically conservative rural part of the United States where many neighbors despise government, democrats, and President Obama in particular: “I am a supporter of Pres Obama, but if his wife were to run, I would vote for her!”
- In response to a person describing his own personal beliefs to a very large online community: “I love what you say about no privileged center AND everywhere is a center. This is my reality too. I believe that every living being is at the center of something and at the edge of something. This is an especially good daily reminder for those of us who’ve been told that our ideas are cutting edge. When I talk about my work, I like to remind those calling the groups I study “cutting edge” that some people, from birth, are taught, for example, about Ubuntu, I exist because we exist. So while it may be cutting edge for me, it’s just “who we are” for others. :-)”
- In response to a high-tech person in a high-tech work world asking her community how to get the very best reliable internet access while traveling in Germany and Switzerland: “In each new town, ask locals for the coffee shop with the best coffee and wifi and walk there 3 to 6 times a day, put your feet up, and revel in being so far from home with good coffee and wifi and kind locals and walking.”
- In response to a community member sharing a numbered list documenting what she most loves about her life right now: “This is so fucking beautiful! #s 6 and 10 are BIG in my life now too. Refusing to pause for anything less than “fuck yeah” are the same exact words I used recently to help a college professor friend come to grips with the fact that he’s not fully happy in his work. It’s not a question of choosing between I hate, I tolerate, or I like my work. Not when there is “fuck yeah!!!!!!” and “i fucking ADORE my work!!!” as choices out there. In the end, the only things you have to give up to get there are the things that didn’t deeply matter to you any way and the parts of yourself you happily shed like a snake leaving its old skin behind.”
- A woman’s response to being cut off by another community member: “it’s weird that you’re interrupting me and not letting me make my point, because we get along so well. So let me make my point. But it is important, I think, the interruption is important, I think, because now we know, at least from both of your perspectives that women are not faring worse than men in the economy. That women aren’t getting paid less for equal work. I think that’s a serious difference in factual understanding of the world.”
- In response to several community members getting angry with each other, moving away from the issue they’d come together to discuss, and attempting to “win” by convincing the other of the value of their point/perspective/ideas: “In my research, one thing I’ve learned is that when I move into fear and anger it means I’m approaching or crossing a self boundary as an individual. Today feeling fear and anger is one of the tools I use to know “Am I moving in the world right now as an individual? As a small self-org group of trusted others? As community (where I can fully, openly embrace strangers known by the community)? Or as the space between (where I can embrace everybody because I actually experience myself as everybody)?” All are valid, useful states that serve an important purpose. To my ears, fear and anger (beyond the immediate “I’m about to be physically attacked by a bear” kind) say “I have fallen out of the group (or am worried that I’m about to) and I need help getting back in.” Love and listening and compassion pull individuals back into the self-org group, community, and space between states. I saw this within the groups I study before I fully recognized it in myself. As a community, we may not be able to do this for AIG’s Steve Miller–yet–but we most certainly can do it for each other–those we know and don’t know here. We do it all the time. That’s actually how I know this is a community.”
Spoilers! Eight of the 10 above examples were me. All eight were spontaneous and courageous for individual me in the moment. All surprised me and several actually stunned me. It certainly appeared to be me saying these words out loud, but those closest to me know that I’m as likely to break into to tears as I am to say something courageous out loud within a very large group, especially an angry, arguing group experience, which several of these were. At least the old me was. But not this week. Hmm. None of my eight examples hold a candle to the stunning courage demonstrated by the two other people in the above examples. Their courage teaches me something new every month. One is an amazing mom and farm wife and friend. One is an amazing national news commentator. My personal poster-kids of courage.
I think maybe 99% of all the courage in existence is the internal courage to change: every quiet little internal choice about who we are, what we believe, and who we will allow others to be and what we will allow others to believe in our presence. The other 1% of all courage in existence gets all the attention and press, but it’s not where the deepest beauty of courage is. Not really.
Something else happened to me this week. I was given a gift by someone who said such a hurtful thing in one of my communities that it made me sob. Number 4 above is part of that experience. This week I watched myself become something new: a caring, close, listening, discerning, quiet, kind, and gentle kicker of metaphorical ass when it became clear that the community itself was asking for a teaching moment of close and gentle metaphorical ass kicking. And it actually worked. The person left the conversation, went and did his own research, and came back armed with videos and stories showing other perspectives beyond his own and saying that he’d spoken from a blind spot he could now see. Wow. I was speechless. I eventually said “I just fell in love with you a little bit. Thank you for bringing so many additional perspectives into the discussion.” What else could I say? A guy who’d made a deeply hurtful statement had just demonstrated that he was really at his core a thoughtful, remarkable human being who could change himself in an instant.
The gift he gave me (besides revealing more of his beautiful self and the fact that I can now trust my collective self to recognize these moments) is I now have a deeper understanding of the expression “Turn the other cheek”. As a kid I was taught that it meant one thing: that I should respond to a verbal aggressor without anger, without verbal violence of any sort, and ideally (for a woman) silence. But what if anger is actually a gift? I learned that if you graphically, verbally demonstrate how painfully you (and a friend) are receiving what is being said in a discussion, that it can support the other person in imagining that same pain within themselves. And if they can feel your pain within themselves, then they’ve already changed. I learned that a clear and vivid description of what somebody’s words are physically doing to me is not an attack on them. I will forever think of a different set of cheeks when I hear the expression “Turn the other cheek!” Next time, I’d like to hope that I’ll at least have the presence of mind to leave the curse word out. Then again, it’s tough to argue with a spontaneous approach that worked so beautifully. 🙂
Community and self-organizing groups don’t need courage. They have courage. It’s as individuals that we need courage: usually in what appear to be the very smallest of acts. Acts like showing ourselves and others who we really are, saying what we believe, recognizing and admitting that our own short-sightedness caused another pain, describing the impact of hateful words and actions on our physical selves so that others can hear them, offering kindness to those who believe the opposite of what we believe (and kindness to ourselves when we inevitably mess this one up), and letting go of who we once were in favor of who we strongly suspect (but aren’t completely certain) we now can be.
These aren’t really tiny acts at all. These are the most important acts: the acts that proceed the discovery that we are better than we’d previously imagined possible. Courageous acts that cannot be taken from us by others. Acts of individual courage (“Did I really just say that out loud?! Oh shit!”) that morph into habit within self-organizing groups and community (“That’s just how we roll.”). When you are utterly surrounded by courageous people, you’ll be surprised to discover that the honest, powerful, and courageous voice that you are hearing now is actually your own.