12/14/2011

Adventist present [media] truth—a vision to be realized



John Hunt is a recognized author and advertising guru.* His claim to fame is being a co-creator of a partner company with the TBWA advertising agency whose international success is driven by the mantra, “Life’s to short to be mediocre.” What he has to say seems at once poignant and challenging to many a Seventh-day Adventist church member, leader and communicator (in that order): “We don’t know what we don't know until we do what we don’t usually do.” (1)
            Mr. Hunt’s comment brings me to an unrealized vision from more than a decade ago, from which some of us are yet to wake up. The vision has to do with an intentional focus (one would hope and assume) on improving the public perception of our church.
            This was rekindled in my mind by the current Mormon public image perception campaign. The thoughts I wish to share are aimed at creating a teaser for a conversation. What may emerge will hopefully assist in self-assessment as to how to approach a need to be seen and experienced as a people who are worth getting to know. The result—the Good News about Jesus Christ will be better known.

Are we actually in the marketplace?

            Seventh-day Adventists may not be as rich as the Mormons, but we seem to be doing rather well in our splendid isolation, seeing some growth in mission, while resorting to moaning about our poor public perception.
            Don’t you cringe when someone mixes your religious affiliation with that of someone else?
            Adventists are nearly absent where others are present in engaging the public with their causes. To start with, by clinging largely on to a view and the urgency that this world will soon end, we are equally timid at considering “shouting from the rooftops.”
            As members of society, all of us have similar communication tools at our disposal. These methods are actually neither sacred nor secular. The content and what propels our communication is different. For Seventh-day Adventists, the apocalyptic in its varied expressions, we argue, is the coin to spend. Yet our communication efforts and the attractive and persuasive messaging required are relegated to the all too often “tried and true” methods that worked before, but are effective no longer. The world and its marketplace continue to move on and old ways of communication are left behind. But how ready is the church to jump into a required notoriety created by contemporary media?
            You and I are participants (or at least observers) in the era of new communication and its technological advancement. Religious words that once were carefully considered, and the name of God, which was held in reverence, now seem to be at best—ignored. The church, when it speaks, is hardly listened to. Religious verbiage is not understood and the fact that one uses many religious words does not mean one is held in awe. Religious media is craving to be relevant, yet, today’s audience says it simply—show me what you believe, but don’t overwhelm me with your talk.
            What is actually needed is to step forward, forsaking timidity and engage with content development with a clear identity and messaging focused on the future. The media is already there. In the marketplace. He who is not present, a proverb says, is not right.

Now, a Mormon story.

            The Mormons support their missionary efforts with ample investment in communication and branding. A recent Mormon communication approach was presented in a well-researched article in the New York Times.(2) The article explained the focus and intentionality of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in launching a media campaign, which connects to the current U.S. Presidential race with two Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman who are also well-respected members of the LDS Church.
            Unlike with Adventists, for the LDS Church it’s not the second coming of Jesus that is at stake here. There may be varied outcomes they are aiming at, among them a need to be known as an OK religious group —“nothing to be afraid of”—but also to be recognized for “whom” they wish to be recognized as.
            I am in support of their campaign. Perhaps at last my church will not be mistaken for being a community of Latter-day Saints!
            Going back a few decades, I recall a meeting in the office of an ambassador whose windows were overlooking St. Peter’s Square. At some point in our conversation he pointed to a difference between the Catholics and the Adventists. He said “Catholics are largely steeped in the past, and with a predictable presence enhanced by the ‘communication Pope.’ But, I see you as a contemporary Christian community with a message the world is searching for. We are all dealing with issues of living safer, better, healthier lives, and we all need hope.”
            Then he added, “But, you are timid about it. Why?” 
            Such was his opinion about a people of hope, which we are claiming to be. His values, which Seventh-day Adventists hold as true and lasting. Among the lessons from that conversation was also that we might just have a problem with our own identity. Moreover, what we have we are largely keeping to ourselves.

Our identity is increasinly beyond Millerite.

            Designating Adventism as a homemade variety of Christianity in America, Paul K. Conkin, professor of history at Vanderbilt University recognizes a tension in knowing who we are. He writes rather favorably about the church’s growth and mission. Writing about our beliefs, he states that Seventh-day Adventists “seem very close to the Christians Paul addressed in Thessalonica in the early days of Christianity, and close to the apocalyptic expectations of Jesus and his disciples.” (3) But, in his well-researched thesis, American Originals, he describes struggles of the church’s founders to establish Seventh-day Adventism’s distinct identity. He writes, “One tension that has been most basic and enduring involves Seventh-day Adventist identity” (4).
            Far from being conclusive about one’s evaluations, this very issue seems quite enduring for Adventist communicators. Many a church functionary is more eager to connect our identity with what was before us—the Millerites. They do this at the cost of defining us today. In dealing with such questions as “Who are you?” many a communicator will roll out a list of comparisons or differences with other religious groups, thus giving a license to declare that in this or that we are special, unique or distinct. Somehow this distinctiveness has yet to release dividends in image clarity or more interest.
            It is hardly useful to generalize. There are many examples of individuals and communities making a difference, creating change, and responding well to the mission objectives of Adventism. In the area of name recognition and public relations, there are parts of our globe where Seventh-day Adventists go about improving the church’s public perception and they seem to know how it works.
In Australia, we know how to enter the PR game and we begin by engaging with communication experts, as well as by identifying our audience for specific communication. It can be explained that if communication is taken seriously, image building will become an asset to all else we do, like in Poland in the 1980s, when the public-interest issues of social pathologies were taken on board and executed with a communication intentionality required to make these approaches viable and outcome-rich. 
            Just a few years ago in Romania, the church took a topic of a rather poor Bible awareness in this Christian country and used the traffic-heavy streets to invite citizens to discover what the Holy Bible is. Ads were everywhere.
            A somewhat different story comes from Jamaica. There, the church is challenged by the national media to be on top of the game (read: PR game) of being prominent. A known newspaper publisher-editor stated that Seventh-day Adventists graduated from a minority to the largest faith group on the island. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked. “You are now in the driver’s seat and we will be looking toward you to be a leading moral voice,” he added.
            Apart from stressing the apocalyptic themes throughout our history, Conkin noted: “It is worth noting that no other American-based denomination has ever attempted to transform itself so fully into a worldwide fellowship. No other American-based denomination has turned so fully to modern communication technology, including the use of the Internet.” (5)

One thing is to recognize our own importance ourselves, another, when others offer their appraisal of how they see us.

            On the eve of a 100th anniversary of Seventh-day Adventist corporate communication, it may be well, in my view, to recall Ellen G. White’s forceful communication counsel. She seemed to opt for newness in the way the church goes about its communication efforts. She commented that, the character and importance of our work are judged by the efforts made to bring it before the public.  When these efforts are so limited, the impression is given that the message we present is not worthy of notice.” (6)
            This founding leader of the church stressed the relevance and importance of how we should care about what we say, how we say it, and how we listen to the world. “We should remember that the world will judge us by what we appear to be.” (7)
            Our brand may be clear, however, our communication is timid, resulting in part from our lack of clarity over our identity. Our message lacks public relevance due to a preoccupation with communication that primarily focuses on discussing the past, and messaging geared mostly at addressing ourselves rather the general public.
Ellen White also wrote:
            Truth will be made so prominent that he who runs may read. Means will be devised to reach hearts.  Some of the methods used in this work will be different from the methods used in the work in the past; but let no one, because of this, block the way by criticism (8).
            In one of his books, Paul Arden of the Saatchi & Saatchi fame, wrote: “Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have.” (9) To translate his comment into Adventist mission, we could simply say—Adventism is the opportunity we already have.
            In Arden’s parlance, “When it can’t be done, do it. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t exist.” Today’s generation knows it. This generation is not bashful to articulate it. Just join or check what is on display in Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, those relational social communities. Those who “live” there also seem to be saying: If your present is expressed in the past, it will not be found in your future. 
            Whether a new communication strategy for the Adventist world church will replace the current one (11), there will continue to be a need to try out new creative approaches to improving church awareness in society, globally and locally. The vision statement the world church agreed on in 1995 seems to continue to offer a useful point of reference for any branding efforts or for relevant communication programs of our church: Seventh-day Adventists will communicate hope by focusing on the quality of life that is complete in Jesus Christ.

Our brand—hope.

            Principles of the Adventist faith notwithstanding, is there a present in Adventist identity? Or, is it locked in a formula, which perhaps was never intended to last forever? 
            In the words of Peter Gabriel - "As always, the rest is up to you."

*This essay was also published on the Spectrum Magazine blog. See: http://bit.ly/uX8rSd 

(1) John Hunt, The Art of the Idea, and How it Can Change Your Life, 2009; p. 115. 
(2)  Mormon’s Ad Campaign May PlayOut on the ’12 Campaign Trail” by Laurie Goodstein, November 17, 2011. 
(3)  Paul K. Conkin, American Originals, Homemade Varieties of Christianity, 1997; p. 145. 
(4) Ibid, p. 138. 
(5) Ibid, p. 144. 
(6) Evangelism, p. 128. 
(7) Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 397. 
(8) Evangelism, pp. 129, 130. 
(9) Paul Arden, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, 2003; p. 4 
(10)  Ibid, p. 46 
(11) “Seventh-day Adventist World Communication Strategy—Report” was adopted at 1995 General Conference Session, Utrecht, Netherlands. Implementation of what was to be known as the Hope Strategy, it identified tasks for the church on all levels and through institutions.

11/03/2011

A leader should take you forward

Jan Paulsen, author of Where Are We Going?

There is an anecdote Jan Paulsen, author of a newly published book, Where Are We Going?*, sometimes shares about Odd Jordal, a fellow Norwegian, church leader, and a missionary from decades ago. In a conversation about a challenge with preparation of so many new sermons, week after week, Pastor Jordal quipped, that after one preached the sermon for the third time to the same congregation, that the full benefit would be obtained.
            Odd Jordal’s comment came to mind as I read, underlined, and paused to re-read many a statement in Where Are We Going?
            Jan Paulsen, until last year the world leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has written a 127-page volume of reflections and lessons from his lifetime of leadership of service.
            With book reviews still in the works, mine is a set of thoughts that resonate with me on my own, personal level. Having watched, read and heard Jan Paulsen over many years, I was wondering if the book would include some of his earlier memorable statements and concepts - some of which would have perhaps matured as time went by - that would be worth revisiting. I wasn’t disappointed.
            In short, the book is a timely and concise reminder of things on record, expanded, and continuously relevant.
            A blunt assertion could be made that in a faith community such as Seventh-day Adventists, softer, well-rehearsed topics are preferred, and as such are comfortably repeated again and again. There is safety and comfort in a quiet sameness. So, it is resolved to better not to touch uncomfortable issues. An image is created of a forbidden truth to be kept at bay and best untouched.
            However, Where Are We Going? is laced with themes that should never leave the leadership menu of Adventism. For many a reader, the book will be a welcome thought-stimuli. A book such as his gets attention even simply because it is authored by a world ecclesiastical leader. When leaders speak, we usually respond with some interest.
            Immediately after his election as the world church leader, Paulsen identified three main audiences for his particular attention – the youth and women (“two majorities often treated like minorities”), as well as church leadership. In his book, Paulsen spells out his concerns as to how the church nurtures these individuals and groups, how it responds to their particular needs and interests, and what course needs to be pursued. You will not find a “them” and “us” language in Where Are We Going? whether the author is dealing with the church members in their internal church setting, when in conversation with young people, or with adherents to other religions.
            In the realm of social media, Paulsen’s volume is a book of quotes suitably destined to populate the Facebook pages. Here is a sample: “Adventist ministers and leaders don’t have mysterious powers to assign people to heaven or hell” (p. 31). Again about leaders: “Outstanding Adventist leaders realize that they are not always right,” (p. 35).
            Another, “True communication takes place only in the absence of fear. Do our colleagues feel safe when they are talking to us?” (page 32). On the same page: “God will save people, not statements.”
            Speaking about “The Church and ‘Other People’,” the author writes: “Contamination is not a significant threat if we’re sure about who we are and who walks with us,” (p. 55).
            The book offers a metaphorical mirror into which we look and hopefully review the state each of us, and particularly church leaders. What do you see?
            Paulsen uses plain language when he speaks about a frequently recurring attitude of “I know it all.” Many a leader has fallen on such a self-sharpened sword. He writes, “I’d hate to spend my time surrounded only by people who think they have everything worked out just right. They become arrogant, clinical, and judgmental of those who still have a lot of growing to do.” (p. 107).
            Throughout the book, there are many what I would call as “Paulsenesque” phrases, with many a sentence understated - a manner of speaking one recognizes as his trademark. As one ponders on a context to each of those statements one glides into a deeper meaning.
            Where Are We Going? is a book of questions. Countless questions. Simply start with the book’s title. It opens with a question, and is an invitation to a conversation.
            Asking questions is an effective method for a teacher, whose interest is to make his students think and think for themselves. Paulsen invites the reader to consider a language of openness, “communication without fear,” as he puts it. He calls for more listening when relating to each other, with a language of civility and acts of generosity. As “our words matter,” what’s needed is that we “really listen,” he writes.
            In a chapter entitled “Living in Tension,” Paulsen challenges with a comment, “We tend not to like those who ask difficult questions. … Questions lead to a dialogue, which in turn contributes to the bonding between God’s people. And questions keep us alert.” And he continues, that “As an Adventist leader, don’t be afraid of questions. Instead, fear silence, for apathy is far more hazardous to the body of Christ than is critical thinking” (p. 110).
            It’s quite expected that many readers will appreciate what the book presents. Some may perhaps study it. Others will have mixed, even negative feeling about it. In any case, such is a destiny for all endeavors when thoughts are put into words, and are made public. Paulsen will smile and simply quip, that if there was no criticism, the author has failed.
            Indeed, in an ecclesiastical world of sameness and predictable, lofty declarations, some readers will find the author’s invitation to a healthy, civilized discourse about the church’s future as threatening. As I see it, the author is unapologetic when pointing at the values stated, and re-stated by Scripture, and the reality that “we have not arrived yet.”
            Considering the unfinished journey of a Christian pilgrim, one knows exactly what Paulsen means when he reminds himself, that “it’s impossible to walk backwards into the future with eyes fixed on how things used to be,” (p. 34). The book makes numerous assertions that for a Christian church, there is only a future to be considered. As one expected, page after page, Paulsen re-states a firm belief that the church’s mission is yet to be accomplished.
            Neither is God finished with me, he comments.
            Though offering plenty to chew on, the Where Are We Going? leaves one with wanting more.
            Until we hear again from Jan Paulsen, there is already plenty to reflect, reclaim, and … change. 
*Jan Paulsen, Where Are We Going?, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2011.

Building the future through listening: Jan Paulsen in conversation with young people in New York City during one of 25 televised live, unscripted and unedited Let's Talk events.
  

10/25/2011

Revisiting Christianity: The new is saying No! to the old and stale


Exterior door sculpture at the Church of the Gracious Mother of God. Warsaw, Poland


Dave Thomas, Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University, asks a question: "What would the world be like if the followers of Jesus were known as people who are kind?"*
          Thomas' fine essay actually says that if the Bible is their guide, wouldn't they give attention to what religion-by-example calls for. He is aiming his comments at the Seventh-day Adventist Christians in particular. But his thoughts are just as appropriate to all followers of Jesus. One lesson from the essay is that "living by the Truth" should be seen in more than doctrinal correctness.
            His commentary resonates with what the recent-past Adventist world church leader asks - how attractive is the church for those it should ... attract? In his recent thought-provoking book, Where Are We Going?, Jan Paulsen challenges church leadership to address the climate in the congregations.
            "For unbelievers, our churches are meant to be places of healing and renewal, where they will be drawn in and find caring human relationships. ... For believers, our churches are meant to be places to feel free, safe, and at home. They are meant to be cities of refuge, not battlefields."**
           The recent parliamentary election in Poland has again awoken a debate about an intersection of religion and national politics, but also what qualities should the Catholic Church be known for. In what is recognized as a predominantly Catholic nation, one of the unexpected winners in Poland on October 9 was an anticlerical centrist, Janusz Palikot.
            Out of obscurity of populist antics, happenings, and slogans, a master of notoriety in politics, Mr. Palikot launched a successful campaign challenging the Catholic establishment, including what is referred to as it's backward and reactionary craving for dominance in national politics. Named after its creator, the Palikot Movement party came third with over 10 percent of votes.
            His slogans to reclaim the country from the shackles of enslaving religiosity appealed to the young generation. The largely postmodern generation is tired of dogmatic Catholicism and its influence on their freedoms in public life. They voted for change and spoke against tampering with contemporary solutions to life problems of today's Poland.
            Not that the topic is new, but like a perennial plant comes up with clock-like regularity. The new is saying No! to the old and stale.
             My recent encounter with the Polish election as reported in the media parked my attention on an editorial comment by Rev. Adam Boniecki, editor of Tygodnik Powszechny, a respected independent Catholic weekly. His editorial published next day, recognized Mr. Palikot's electoral win as "an anticlerical's expected success."**
              Boniecki wrote that the "less than serious Palikot has turned out to be serious." In what is regarded as secular Europe, Poland is often perceived as a “haven of faith.” The Catholic commentator refers to many harsh reactions against Mr. Palikot's charges leveled at the Catholic establishment, and his attempts to make Poland secular. He then asks a few questions, which the Catholic microcosm would do well to recognize, in his opinion.
               In his words, "listening to the often unjust charges, intently listening to the often one-sided and biased antichurch views, it is worth to ask a question, with which Paul VI reacted when charges against the church were reported to him: 'What if they have some credence, too?'"
               What comes next is also a perennial issue that pops-up among many conscientious Christians, as they are challenged by those who watch them and ... wonder.
                If people are reacting angrily, unjustly or with an indifference, would we echo after Boniecki, "as believers, what face of the Gospel are we showing to the world?"
                There is more. "Would the unbelievers who are watching us, say, like the 'pagans' remarked about the early Christians: 'Look, how they love each other?' Are we the witnesses of evangelical poverty? Unselfishness? Love? Caring for the helpless? Can a poor man knock on our door with confidence? What about a sinner, a blasphemer, a Satanist? Are we more caring about the institution, or about a human person? In our parishes, is the Sunday Mass a joyous experience for the [faith] community?" the editor asks.
              I share a similar sentiment. You may be a Protestant Christian, but you may be equally arrogant and judgmental - theology aside - toward those who represent a different worldview, even an extreme one.
           Boniecki continues with more questions. "Will we leave the 99 sheep and seek out the one which is lost? Is the one that was found taken into our arms, or deluged with reproach ("where on earth did you go?") and demanded signs of remorse and acts of recompense?"
            Finally, the editor asks: "Considering the success of the Palikot Movement, it's worth doing a conscientious and serious evaluation: Those who are watching our deeds, would they for sure be praising the Father who is in heaven?"
            Years ago, I read a personal ad in an Adventist church magazine. A church member wondered if she had a chance to get married again, and with a fellow believer. She wrote: “I am ugly, fat, a single mother, and I am looking for love.” Some enquiries revealed that though she came to church regularly and was active in her witness, she was hungry for love. Of course, she wanted also to get married again. She simply did not experience inclusiveness within her faith community.
           Simply put, many churches, though professing to be purveyors of the good news of the Gospel, are not “walking the talk.”
            All of these issues have their validity throughout Christianity. But, I ask myself, is my own Christian witness known for acts of justice, kindness, and for an assortment of virtues, and among them, gratitude and generosity?
             Whatever is the answer, whatever needs to change, our lives matter when they are reflected in the lives of others.
             That's my soapbox for today.
*Spectrum Magazine blog, October 14, 2011, http://spectrummagazine.org
**Jan Paulsen, Where Are We Going?, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2011, p. 106.
***Ks. Adam Boniecki, “Antyklerykala sukces spodziewany” [Anticlerical’s expected success],Tygodnik Powszechny, Oct. 11, 2011. After this blog was published, Rev. Boniecki was ordered not to speak publicly and in the media by his ecclesiastical superiors, the Marian Order. His comments are viewed as not being representative of the Catholic Church. [Added on Nov. 3, 2011] 

A makeshift wooden cross was erected in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw after the Polish president and 100 dignitaries died in an air crash on April 10, 2010. It's public placement and refusal to be moved elsewhere became an object of bitter political arm wrestling.

10/12/2011

On repairing our everydayness


A brief marketing encounter a few days ago with the Sligo Adventist School in Takoma Park, Maryland, a grade school operated by a congregation I worship in, gave me an opportunity to listen to parents of kids whose lives are being impacted by caring teachers. Their stories zeroed-in on such concepts as values and virtues which properly classified the pedagogues of the school.
            These stories reminded me of Janusz Korczak, a pedagogue, and a guardian of the homeless, neglected, and often abandoned children.
            Korczak’s story is rich and compelling. It was Summer of 1942. He refused to leave the Warsaw Ghetto because of his adopted children, and met his fate in the gas chambers of Treblinka concentration camp. His forte was “ethical sensitivity” in education, and a belief that one should place physical development of a child on the same level as his or her culture of feelings and emotional life.
            In his journal he wrote this little memoir about sparrows:
            During the summer the windows were usually open and they would come into the room and sit on a flowerpot. If I was also sitting still, they were not afraid. But once, when I entered the room unexpectedly, a sparrow flew away and being scared off, it could not find a way out and hit the window glass. It was stunned. Maybe hurt, even. Later, before I entered my room, I would knock on the door.
            But now, it’s wintertime and I have once again asked the glass-fitter to come and cut out a small [corner] piece of the window, so that sparrows could come in and eat. It would be warmer for them inside.
            This little gem of a story reveals the secret of Korczak’s educational success. When from time to time he received psychologically crippled children into his new homes for orphans, he treated them the same way he would treat the sparrows. All he wanted was that the boys and girls would not be afraid anymore.
            Reminders. What would we do if they ceased to propel us into repairing our everydayness, helping someone by being present in their lives, perhaps just by keeping them company and simply casting the fear away.


10/05/2011

Lavender, bell heathers and the celestial bliss

French lavender. Annecy, France

It was a daydream. It catapulted me into this piece because of a rather unexpectedly poor and cold weather. Having a deep connection with the nature I am enchanted by the seasons that unveil the nature’s beauty.
            So, I was imagining a permanent year morphing all four seasons into each other.
            What if, the purple lavender of the summer in Provence seamlessly shared the colors and the scent of the purple autumn bell heathers in Hampshire’s heathlands in England. Being born in the month of September, it’s the heathers that attract my sensory pleasure.
            Then, my daydream morphs seamlessly the colors of the golden autumn in Poland, Canada and New England, giving themselves up for the wintery whiteness and abundance of snow in front of our house in Laurel, Maryland. Grazyna would then permanently enjoy frolicking in it and giggling like a small girl. She would wave her arms creating an angel imprint in a snow mountain on a day when the hazard of driving would keep her away from … school.
            Soon the snow would join the warming sunrays of spring, with an array of green hope covering the flora.
            Such daydreaming is a reaction to what one experiences in a loss of what once was predictable, the golden yesteryear. Now, there remains the predictability of the effects of global warming, and with it the decaying nature and beauty of our Mother Earth.
            In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway describes sadness “of losing a season out of your life” when unseasonal changes in the weather destroyed the expected warmth of the coming spring. “When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason. In those days, though, the spring always came finally; but it was frightening that it had nearly failed,” he wrote about his Paris days in the 1920s.
            As I recall what it was like in the “good old days” of my distant past, gone are the farmers gazing at an evening sky and knowing for certain what would come in the morning.
            What seems to be left now is a daydream.
            What followed one night was a dream. While I daydream in full color, my night dreams are checkered with some color, but all too often with black-and-white scenes -these scary nightmares with vivid experiences of fear. I seem to be usually running, escaping, in those bouts of night-imagination.
            That night, what I saw were the images of heaven. The images were definitely inspired by the imagination evoked when reading Scriptural narratives. Whether I was there, or not I cannot tell for certain. What I saw there etched itself in a memory and recalled later again and again.
            People were walking on the heavenly boulevards. It seemed like an uncounted multitude of them. All was bathed in sunshine forming a display of a palette of rainbow colors.
            On closer scrutiny, I recognized some faces. Ha, I heard myself utter, did they deserve to be there? I would not have expected to see some of them enjoying the celestial bliss. Oh, really?
            When I woke up, it was obvious that hardly anything is as simple and true in life as one assumes and is convinced about it.
            Whether you dream at night or daydream in the afternoon about a better reality, all you can do is look after your own rights or wrongs. 
            The rest – actually everything - belongs to the Life Giver. 

Human palette of rainbow colors. Chirala, India

10/03/2011

Such sweet and intoxicating scent of ego

 
Lenin's Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow, Russia 

If you are a writer, you know when a story will write itself.
            Such a moment came after reading a passage from Tom Rachman's fascinating true-to-life novel about predicaments of the newspaper industry, The Imperfectionists. I noted at once that a story is being written in my head and would be put to paper with my favorite Faber-Castel pencil.
            So this is how it goes... A reporter is sent to interview a once well-known author. His assignment is to prepare an obituary about her as she is getting on with age and the facts about her life are sparse. Reflecting on her own encounter with death knocking-in, she thinks aloud describing the absurdity of ambition, and yet remaining in its thrall.
            "It's like being a slave all your life, then learning one day that you never had a master, and returning to work all the same. Can you imagine a force in the universe greater than this? Not in my universe. You know, even from the earliest childhood it dominated me. I longed for achievements, to be influential - that, in particular. To sway people. This has been my religion: the belief that I deserve attention, that they are wrong not to listen, that those who dispute me are fools. Yet, no matter what I achieve, the world lives on, impertinent, indifferent - I know all this, but I can't get it through my head. It is why, I suppose, I agreed to talk to you. To this day, I'll pursue any folly to make the rest of you shut up and listen to me, as you should have from the start!"
            And she continues, "Here is a fact: nothing in all civilization has been as productive as ludicrous ambition. Whatever it's ills, nothing has created more. Cathedrals, sonatas, encyclopedias: love of God was not behind them, nor love of life. But the love of man to be worshipped by man."
            What she describes can be viewed as a slice of our common folly. My folly certainly fits into this picture.
            My boss had an uncanny way of bringing me back to earth from my inflated opinion of myself. A few years ago there was an encounter that registered itself among the experiences of life, but needed to be recalled back, reclaimed.
            My chest was bursting as I shared with him what happened, and how elated I was to be recognized.
            "Aren't we wonderful," he said, and walked away.
            It was a moment to forget, I thought in an instant.
            A treasure throve of life's experiences gave birth to that memory as I read the words - "... I deserve attention."
            Frankly, I admit to creating lots of madness in my own life, as I pursued ambition and praise. So, from time to time a lesson comes, and is also often forgotten in the fog of pursuing fleeting praise.           
            Bob Edwards, once an NPR radio host, remarked that what he did on the radio was not about him. He satisfies his ego by the very fact that he is on the radio already, he commented in conversation with another radio personality, Diane Rehm.
            "I'm a minimalist. And in the show, you know, especially "Morning Edition," doing NPR news, it wasn't about me, it was about my guests," he told Rehm. "My guests were super so I wanted to hear more of them. You know, I had enough ego satisfaction just to be hosting the program. That did it for me. I didn't need to talk."
            The wisdom others teach you, I reflected, as I listened to Edwards.
            It's never easy to sober up from intoxication with one's ego. A question lingers on: How can one remain on an auto-pilot firmly set to being useful for the sake of goodness and for the sake of others? Just be, do good, and the meaning of it all will be with those who encounter your life?
            This post stopped writing itself three days ago. Then, true to my enjoyment of twists and turns in life, I began writing its closing sentences. I got stuck in the process.
            Then at one bend I took, a thought appeared. Stop! - it shouted at me. Let the piece write itself.
            In an avalanche of verbiage, it is much useful to acknowledge those people in your life who disagreed with you. They are saying that you don't have all the answers. You are just as well not having them, either.
            A masterpiece in life is decided in the encounter with others. They will tell you when they see it. 
            In the words of the Bible, “Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul.” – 1 Peter 2:11 The Message

Strasbourg Cathedral, France