Saturday, May 31, 2008


I wanted to talk about something that might be a tough topic today...revenge. From you will find the following definitions:

to exact punishment or expiation for a wrong on behalf of, esp. in a resentful or vindictive spirit

an opportunity to retaliate or gain satisfaction

harm done to another person in return for harm which he has done (to oneself or to someone else)

It is my belief that the desire for revenge contributed not only to so many US citizens supporting Bush's pitch to invade Iraq in the wake of 9/11, but it also fuels much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system today (especially our continuing use of the death penalty).

A couple of years ago I read a fascinating book about a woman who struggled with revenge. Her name is Laura Blumenfeld and the book is titled Revenge: A Story of Hope. In 1986, Laura's father was shot in Jerusalem by a member of a rebel faction of the PLO. Her father lived, but for years she felt the need for revenge. As the jacket description says:

Traveling through Europe, America, and the Middle East, Blumenfeld gathers stories and methods of avengers worldwide as she plots to infiltrate the shooter's life. Through interviews with Yitzhak Rabin's assassin; with members of the Albanian Blood Feud Committee; the chief of the Iranian judiciary; the mayor of Palermo, Sicily; an Egyptian heroin smuggler; the Israeli prime minister and the military chief of staff; priests; sports fans; fifth-grade girls; and prostitutes, among others, she explores the mechanics and psychology of vengeance.

Reading this book gave me a pretty good sense of what revenge means to many different people living in different cultures. But the book doesn't stop there. Having gathered this information, Laura manages to learn the identity of the man who shot her father (who was in prison at the time) and introduces herself to his family as a reporter. Over a period of months, she not only gets to know his family, but corresponds with him in prison.

In the end, she comes forward to testify on his behalf at a hearing that will determine if he is to be released from prison due to health reasons. At the time no one, including the shooter, knew of her connection to his victim. Here's how she wrote about her preparation:

Standing there as a woman named "anonymous" felt like the defining moment of my life. If this worked then the world would be as I wished...

Transformation was the word I had written on the scrap of paper and tucked into the Western Wall the night I had dressed as a Hasidic boy. Transformation was my wish. If I could be a boy, then the shooter - my symbol of evil - could be good. I could make him sorry. But it would take a radical act, something impossibly optimistic, to transform him. That act would leave me vulnerable, and possibly the fool. It would be riskier than anything I had done so far, but my mother's faith in the goodness of people gave me the courage to try.

Laura completes her radical act and finds the transformation she was looking for. But, as she said, she had to risk looking "the fool." For all of our blathering about courage, we often miss its most powerful manifestations.

You might think Laura's story is exceptional, but its not. In looking into this yesterday, I found an amazing website called The Forgiveness Project where you can read many such stories. The one that stands out to me is about the Amy Biehl Foundation. Here's a summary from The Forgiveness Project:

On August 25 1993, Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar working in South Africa against apartheid, was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town. In 1998 the four youths convicted of her murder were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after serving five years of their sentence – a decision that was supported by Amy’s parents. Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the convicted men, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town, a charity which dedicates its work to putting up barriers against violence.

Amy's parents, who run the foundation, embraced two young men who were responsible for killing their daughter, knowing that it was apartheid and its effects that had actually caused her death. They didn't seek revenge, they sought healing as a way to actualize their hopes and pay homage to their daughter's.

As long as we think this kind of reaction is exceptional, we continue to advance the idea that taking revenge is the norm or the most human response. I, for one, don't believe that.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

On being lazy

I imagine that we were all given several labels as children that were used to define us. We were smart, funny, responsible, rebellious, shy, or the opposites... on and on. One of the labels I received as a child was that I was lazy. I remember always being frustrated, feeling like I eventually would have gotten around to getting something done if folks had given me a bit more time.

It wasn't until I was in my first professional job out of college that I began to challenge this label. All of the sudden I took a look at myself and how hard I was working. It was at that moment that I discarded the label.

And yet, as is the case with most of these things, there was some truth to it.

The interesting thing is, there were very clear signs that obviously showed it was way more complicated than that I was lazy. For example, the one comment that ALWAYS showed up on my report card was that I worked too fast and made mistakes. Upon reflection these many years later, I see that I just had different priorities than the adults in my life wanted to see from me. I found most of the things I was asked to do boring and tedious and wanted them out of the way so I could have time for what I really wanted to do...which was think, question, talk, relax.

In this culture that is so committed to action, I was always looking for time for contemplation. Many people over the years have asked me how I managed to escape the cult of the right-wing christian fundamentalism in which I was raised. The answer to that question (at least as far as I've been able to find it), is at least partly tied to this. So I continue to learn to embrace that "laziness" in me...its been a good friend so far.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Gertrude Stein:

It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.

There isn't much that is reviled in this culture more than "doing nothing." But I think its a discipline that we all need to embrace more often - or at least put it into the mix of the balance in our lives. I think we all know that amidst all the consumption and greed, it is the constant frenetic pace of action that distracts us from compassion and the realities that our world is facing. As with so many other things, it is our fear of what we might find in the quiet solitude of contemplation that drives the frenetic pace. But as geomoo put so beautifully in his essay on Attention God

At the magic moments, I see the infinity of human potential. As teacher, I offer the option to let go of the compulsive thoughts, the external demands (largely imagined), and to go for what is really wanted. NO. I mean what is really, really wanted. The heart's yearning.

It is in those moments of quietness that we find our hearts and our wisdom; that we learn, as Nightprowlkitty says, to respond instead of react. And it seems obvious to me that a precursor to "paying attention" is slowing down and taking the time to quietly ponder ourselves and the world around us. Of course "yelling louder" and taking action are also important. But all of that must be grounded in the quiet moments of awareness.

I'll leave you with the words of The Eagles on all this...Learn to be Still.

There are so many contridictions
In all these messages we send
(we keep asking)
How do I get out of here
Where do I fit in?
Though the world is torn and shaken
Even if your heart is breakin’
It’s waiting for you to awaken
And someday you will-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

When the student is ready...

As we all know, this Buddhist saying ends with "the master (or teacher) appears." I am not a Buddhist, nor do I play one on the blogs, but this saying has grounded me for years. I think I'd substitute "learning" for "master" in the quote though, so it would read "When the student is ready, the learning appears."

(My Helper by Bill Rabbit)

Here's how Jean-Claude Gerard Koven describes it:

It is said that when the student is ready, the master appears. This adage is usually associated with going to India to sit at the feet of some swami-ji who speaks in parables. And certainly, I’ve met countless disciples who waft through life inhaling the intoxicating wisdom of their manifested master. I’ve always been left wondering when I would find my one great sage.

Looking back over my wanderings through the metaphysical maze, however, I see that innumerable teachers have guided my journey. Unfortunately, I was so married to a certain model of what a master was that I failed to recognize mine along the way. The fact is we all have gurus; it’s just that most of them aren’t obvious. They don’t have Sanskrit names, speak with a subcontinental lilt, or wear flowing robes. They appear ordinary in every way, yet turn out to be great teachers.

Yes, the teachers and learnings can come in the unlikeliest of forms, and that's why the first part of the saying is what is critical. If we're so busy looking for our guru, we miss getting "ready." So, what does it mean to be ready? That's probably a bigger question than I am capable of answering, but I can look at my own life and try to pull bits and pieces of the puzzle together, at least for what it has meant to me.

The three words that come to mind when I think about this are curiosity, dissonance and trust. Those might sound like a strange combination, so I'll explain what they've meant to me.

I think curiosity is the most obvious in laying the groundwork for being ready. If we feel we already know the answer, no learning can take place. What we need is not just an open mind, but one that has a drive to challenge the status quo, dig deeper and ask the hard questions. Complacency and certainty that we have the answers are often the biggest barriers to any kind of learning.

Perhaps dissonance is the pre-cursor to curiosity. Unless something doesn't jive or is not working, we tend to not notice. I know that when I began to challenge what I had been taught as a child, it was because that teaching didn't "square" with what I was experiencing in the world. It was uncomfortable and so I started asking questions. Many people fear that feeling and try to deny or avoid it. Others look for a guru to make it all go away. What I've learned to do is to try and just rest in it, knowing that a teacher or a learning is about to appear.

Sometimes that takes awhile and I get impatient. I want the "answers" to that feeling of dissonance to be handed to me all nicely packaged and ready to rescue me from the discomfort. And that's where trust comes in. Ultimately its not trust in a guru (although most of my learnings have come when I listen to very wise people). It is trust in me and my ability to meld my intellect and instincts together to find what it is I need to learn or to see the new path that I need to take.

We are experiencing a time of great dissonance in our country these days. I know you join me in often feeling overwhelmed with the fact that we can't always see clear answers on how to fix things. But what grounds me is the assurance that if we have the courage to ask ourselves the tough questions, embrace the dissonance, and trust our instincts...the teacher (or learning) is appearing.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mother's Day Proclamation

I won't be writing anything this weekend because I'm heading to Texas to be with family for Mother's Day and my Mother's 80th birthday.

But I do want to share this Mother's Day Proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


For the last 18 years, I've been the director of a non-profit organization working with urban youth who are starting to get in trouble at home, at school, or with the law. I came to this position naive and inexperienced, so I had a pretty steep learning curve. The toughest lessons I had to learn were about what it meant to organize and lead other people. But running a close second to all of that are the ongoing lessons about racism and its impact on me, our staff, and most importantly, the youth and families we work with.

In the beginning, I thought combating racism was all about learning information and hiring a diverse group of people. For awhile, that was the focus. One of my initial attempts to do that involved organizing a series of "brown bag" seminars with people from different cultures to facilitate discussions. The first person who came in was a Latino man who had worked with youth in this community for over 30 years. I'll never forget his opening remarks, "Latinos come from 22 different countries with a vast array of cultural differences. My family comes from Mexico, so that is the only one of these that I can even begin to address." I thought boy...we're going to need a lot of seminars to cover all this!!!

It was then that I came across an African American woman who taught Social Work at a local university. She gave a presentation at a conference I attended titled "An Artistic View of Diversity." Her basic premise was to correlate what one needed to be an artist and what one needed to traverse all the different frames of diversity. Knowledge, information, and technique are all important pieces of the puzzle. But, as with art, the most important piece is the you see the world. Anyone can learn and potentially misuse the information and techniques. What one needs to be an artist is to have a view of the world that can incorporate the complexities and struggles involved in embracing diversity. She used a song as part of her presentation. And the words to the chorus have always stuck with me.

It's in every one of us
to be wise.
Find your heart,
open up both your eyes.

We can all know everything
without every knowing why.

It's in every one of us
to be wise.

The line that standsout to me is "Find your heart, open up both your eyes."

One of the critical components to the process of combating racism that she shared with us is the ability to incorporate a both/and rather than an either/or vision. An either/or vision sees the world in terms of right/wrong and winner/loser. A both/and vision finds balance and embraces all. It is a form of partnership rather than dominance and a key ingredient to that kind of vision is a balance between our outside and our us a firm identity for ourselves and integrity in our actions. With that kind of vision, we can take responsibility for ourselves and not rely on techniques and formulas. We can open our hearts to others without fear, knowing that we all have a place at the table.

None of this takes away from the need to do the hard work of learning the information that is necessary to really begin to understand one another. But it is the foundation on which we need to build that understanding, the importance of which was described by Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican this way:

The USA teaches us many myths: the Hero Myth, the Great White Myth, the Savages in the Wild Myth, the GodDaddyNation Myth....and so on. Fodder for our cartoons, bland teen movies, and unceasing war rationales. The truth, while somewhat less glitzy, is just as exciting, age-old, and far more empowering. For we—the centuries-strong, the been-here-all-along, the weak, the meek, the She, the black, the brown, the grown-up-from-this-ground, the despised and forgotten and the poor and ground down—are in this fight together. And it is a fight, look all around. A fight for equality, a fight for justice, and sometimes simply a fight for food and human dignity. And as long as we are divided and fighting over scraps and ladder rungs and tossed off politician-dung, there is no justice. So let us remember why it is that we stand here, why we stood up; let us loan one another our strength, and move side by side.

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...