Friday, December 31, 2004

Speaking of Conversation

I am preparing to ring in the New Year the way I usually do: watching my all-time favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, together with my wife here at home. And as much as I enjoy doing so, I also harbor the notion of hosting a gathering some year, where others are invited to join us in our conversation about issues like the meaning of life.

Once known as salons during the Renaissance, typical gatherings were places where great ideas were debated among leaders of the day. One such get-together during more contemporary times is an annual meeting called Renaissance Weekend, usually held over New Year’s weekend. For more information about it, visit

Inquiring minds love good books and a classic title I read on the timeless art of conversation is one by Theodore Zeldin called Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives. Speaking of conversation, it was Admiral Hyman Rickover who succinctly said: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

And as a fellow blogger has stated, “To converse is human…to salon is divine. Salons are informal gatherings where people talk big talk, talk meant to be listened to and perhaps passionately acted upon. Salons are incubators where ideas are conceived, gestated, and hatched.”

We creative types, us writers and artists, are drawn to diverse gatherings that provide a place to share the life of the mind. Bringing people together generates an energy that goes beyond the sum of the individuals. People get creative when they’re with each other. It’s about creating a community where there’s an exchange of ideas. Maybe next year…

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Taking Care of Busyness

Contrary to popular opinion, busyness is not next to godliness. Indeed, if there is one affliction that ails us all it is that of busyness. And it is perhaps never more so than during the holiday season that is upon us. As for me and mine, we are determined to not allow it to rob us of the peace that presents cannot give. Included here are some thoughts on taking care of busyness.

As James Gleick, the author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, writes, “Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers—they all run faster now than ever before. And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and time-saving strategies, the more rushed we feel.”

Sue Monk Kidd echoes much the same sentiment in her writing: “We live in an age of acceleration, in an era so seduced by the instantaneous that we’re in grave danger of losing our ability to wait.” Or in the words of author and speaker Timothy Jones, “We are addicted to quickness.”

Sociologists have coined a word for such a lifestyle: hurrysickness. This condition is the result of living in constant overdrive. We cram each moment so full of tasks that we have no time to experience these events in any meaningful way. “The press of busyness is like a charm,” the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote.

Yet, the celebrated thinker and author Henry David Thoreau has one simple question for those of us left queasy from hurrysickness: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?” In the end, we dilute the antidote when we hunger for success, yet starve our souls. As Archibald D. Hart said, “If history teaches us is that spiritual formation and hurriedness are not compatible companions.”

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Tuning Into Synchronicity

I recall from my younger days a tune by Sting called “Synchronicity.” I forget the words from it but I do remember how I liked the sound of the word, and what it means. Webster defines synchronicity as “the coincidental occurrence of events that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality.”

Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way defines synchronicity as answered prayers. “Is it any wonder we discount answered prayers? We call it coincidence. We call it luck. We call it anything but what it is — the hand of God, activated by our own hand when we act in behalf of our truest dreams, when we commit to our own soul.”

I also like the description of synchronicity by Heather Blakey: “Synchronicity is when you’re thinking strongly about something and a friend you haven’t seen in a while gives you a book on the exact same subject. It’s when you’re contemplating making a change and you happen to talk to precisely the right person to help you get started. Now I have to be up front and admit that while I don’t believe in luck, chance, or anything like that, I do believe in synchronicity.” Amen.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Leaving a Legacy

My wife and I are heading to our second funeral in a week. A family member died last week and a friend died just the other day. In between funerals, I came across a book/CD called Live Like You Were Dying, named after the song popularized by country crooner Tim McGraw.

One of the more inspiring passages of the book reads: “May we live like we were dying. With passion and purpose and mission and meaning…and with a little wild abandon. May we die like we were living. We can’t control the length of our life. Just the depth.”

As I’ve been reflecting lately upon the meaning of life and death and the value of leaving a legacy, I’ve come across a couple of my favorite quotes about it and pray they’ll stoke the fires of your heart as they have mine. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “Don’t die with the music still in you,” and James Dean said, “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Living the Life

I recently read a description of authentic happiness by Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Seligman, there are three paths to happiness: the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life.

The pleasant life is what most people think of when considering whether they are happy or not. Some seek short cuts to the pleasant life through artificial means but sooner or later most people look in the mirror and ask themselves if that is all there is.

The good life comes through deep engagement in work, family life or other activities. In my case it is writing, spending time with my wife and playing golf, but it could be any activity that one finds challenging and rewarding.

Finally, the meaningful life means devoting oneself to an institution or cause greater than oneself. New York Times best-selling author Rick Warren captures this thought with the opening words to his hugely successful book, The Purpose-Driven Life: “It’s not about you. You were made by God and for God—and until you understand that, life will never make sense.”

Another best-selling author, Max Lucado, has written a book that echoes much the same sentiment. It is titled It’s Not About Me and it is subtitled “Rescue From the Life We Thought Would Make Us Happy.” As the Scriptures remind us, we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other things will be added.” While I am experiencing the pleasant life and enjoying the good life, I am also endeavoring to live the meaningful life.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Hearing the Music

Lately I’ve been thinking of music as a metaphor for life. Literature contains a symphony of musical references and the score music plays in the sacramental life. For example, in his moving book titled Morning Sun on a White Piano, Robin R. Myers melodically writes, “The next time you go to hear live music, consider that time before the concert, when the musicians are tuning up, to be very much like the work of the soul. It is all noisy, cranky cacophony until joined in the service of harmony.”

It was John Ruskin who so eloquently stated, “Not without design does God write the music of our lives. Be it ours to learn the time and not be discouraged at the rests. They are not to be omitted, not to destroy the melody, not to change the keynote. If we look up, God Himself will beat the time for us. With the eye on Him, we shall strike the next note full and clear, because we rested. There is no music in a ‘rest,’ but there is the making of music in it. People are always missing that part of the life melody.”

Timothy Jones also chimes in with his own note on the metaphor of music: “Music is beautiful not only for its notes but also its pauses; percussion gives rhythm only with the alternation of sound and silence. So with our days.”

And it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who challenged, “Don’t die with the music still in you.” From my perspective, part of the trouble with living in modern times is that often we allow the busyness of life to choke out our dreams and destinies, not to mention the sanctity and sacredness of daily living. Sadly, many of us settle for being an echo of someone else instead of the unique voice that God created us to be.

I am reminded of the wisdom of Phillips Brooks, who once wrote, “The great danger facing all of us is…that some day we may wake up and find that always we have been busy with the…trappings of life—and have really missed life itself.” As we play our parts in the orchestra of life, let us each strive to make the concert a sublime one.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Redeeming the Time

I am fond of a quote attributed to William Penn that describes the time trap we fall prey to often: “Time is what we want most, but what, alas, we use worst, and for which God will certainly reckon with us when time is no more.” It reminds me of the Scripture that admonishes us to “redeem the time, for the days are evil.”

For us to redeem our time, we need to allocate it so that we don’t succumb to the urgent, but less important, demands of life. For example, we sometimes need to decline extraneous commitments in order to develop meaningful relationships instead. If there’s one creed for us to heed it is that people matter more than programs.

In the words of Nancy Reagan, we must learn to “just say no.” Someone’s need does not necessarily mean we are called to do it. We need to discern the difference between something that is good and something that is right. And saying no to a good idea or need doesn’t always mean never. It may mean not right now.

The ultimate example of pacing oneself through life was Jesus. He knew he only had a limited time here on earth during which to accomplish his mission, yet he daily resisted the temptation to yield to the tyranny of the urgent. If he could lay aside peripheral activities for the sake of his personal agenda, surely we can do so ourselves.

As for me, I want to make the days count rather than simply count the days. And I am learning to do that by negotiating the level of commitment I am prepared to make to outside ventures and then communicating my boundaries to others. For as Dr. Phil teaches, “you train people how to treat you.”

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Surrendering to Serendipity
It has long fascinated me that there are actually two types of time. Chronos is the Greek word from which we get the English word chronology. It specifically refers to the type of time that can be measured by a clock. Kairos also is a Greek word and it stands for purposeful time, the type that is filled with meaning and cannot be conveniently measured.
Whether we use Daytimers or Palm Pilots to schedule our “chronos” time, it is helpful for us to allow sufficient space for some “kairos” time, or in other words, surrender to serendipity. Webster defines serendipity as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
The word serendipity was originally coined by the eighteenth-century British writer Horace Walpole, who defined it as “that quality of mind which, through awareness, sagacity, and good fortune, allows one to frequently discover something good while seeking something else.”
Serendipity can enhance our lives by enabling us to balance spontaneity and structure and allow us to leverage time, not simply log it. If our relationship to time is always one of racing the clock, then perhaps we need to unplug ourselves from manmade chronometers and practice living according to the rhythm of life for a change.

We enhance the quality of our life when we properly discern its times and tides, its ebbs and flows, its rhymes and rhythms. It was Henry David Thoreau who wisely noted: “I love a broad margin to my life.” And lifestyle maven Alexandra Stoddard echoes the same sentiment: “All of us are orbiting like stars in the universe. We can’t have our dance card filled for the rest of our lives, because we need spaces to allow for serendipity.”

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Returning to Simplicity

For some time, I have been studying a trend that has come to be known as “voluntary simplicity.” It is a growing movement toward a simpler, more meaningful life. Born out of people’s disenchantment with the frantic, harried pace of modern life, it is a trend whose time has come.

In a society that has embraced the philosophy that “busier is better,” spawning scores of methods for doing more and getting more, people are finally realizing that there is life beyond tag sales and to-do lists. Simply stated, more and more people are awakening to the reality that there is a vast difference between living life and making a living, and that busy-ness is not necessarily profitable.

“You are not here merely to make a living,” said former president Woodrow Wilson. “You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” It is a sentiment echoed by the philosopher Henry David Thoreau. “There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living,” he suggested.

As the Bible itself states in Ecclesiastes 4:6, “better is a handful with quietness, than both hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.” And it is Thoreau who queries us, “Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?”

As the founding father of voluntary simplicity, Thoreau captured the essence of it when he stated: “Simplify. Simplify. For as one gradually simplifies his life, even the laws of the universe will appear less complex.” Taking his suggestion to heart, there are many who are quitting the rat race and instead of caving in to peer pressure are returning to the simplicity of living more by making do with less.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Spreading the News

In the book The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word of Mouth Marketing, author Emanuel Rosen points out that it’s not necessarily expensive advertising, marketing or public relations that get people to select certain products or services over others—instead it is word of mouth among consumers.

According to a May 2001 McKinsey & Co. study, 67% of U.S. consumer sales are influenced by word of mouth. And personal experience products such as books, music and movies are especially susceptible to the powers of personal persuasion. No doubt all of us can think of incidents in which we have shared buzz about products with business associates, close friends and family members.

“Word of mouth has superseded any form of paid advertising, in terms of influence,” says Marian Salzman, author of Buzz: Harness the Power of Influence and Create Demand. In our world of round-the-clock media bombarding us with an average of 10,000 images daily, personal recommendations carry much more weight than conventional hype from professional spinmeisters. “Go to the trend spreaders and plant yourself intelligently on their radar,” suggests Salzman.

Perhaps the best example of a trend spreader is Oprah Winfrey. It is not unusual for sales of her latest book club selection to skyrocket into the millions of copies, many times thrusting them from the shadows of obscurity into the limelight of newfound fame. Note to trend spreader wannabes: the secret to her success is the uncanny connection she has with her audience created over years of bonding with them.

In its simplest form, the creation of buzz is about one person sharing their experience using a product or service with someone else, usually someone with whom they have an existing relationship. While trend spreading may come more naturally to some people, buzz creation is an activity that anyone can practice with positive results. Pass it on!

Monday, May 31, 2004

Learning to Listen

It has been said that God gave us two ears and only one mouth, indicating the proper proportion of listening to speaking. And statistics make it apparent that listening is a lifelong lesson for us all to learn.

Of all the four communication skills—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—listening is the most frequently used. Research suggests that we spend about 70% of our waking hours communicating, with about 40% of that time spent listening, 35% speaking, 16% reading and 9% writing.

One of the most effective techniques for learning to listen is capitalizing on thought speed. While we speak about 125 words a minute, we mentally process information at about four or five times that rate, so the closer we pay attention the more we remember.

And good listeners also realize that listening has a visual component, as nonverbal factors contribute as much as 80% of message meaning. Such factors as voice tones, voice volume, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body posture can all carry important meaning.

When all is said and done, enhanced listening centers primarily on common sense and courtesy. Perhaps the most applicable rule to follow is simply a revised version of the Golden Rule: “listen to others as you would have them listen to you.”

Monday, May 17, 2004

Digesting the Data

According to the U.S. Library of Congress, 128 million items, including nearly 30 million books, are housed on 530 miles of bookshelves at the world’s largest repository of information in Washington, D.C. About 100,000 books are published each year in America alone. As one observer has said, “‘Print control’ is probably more urgent than birth control.’”

A single edition of today’s New York Times contains more information than an 18th century American would have encountered in an entire lifetime. And on the World Wide Web, total information available is doubling every 2.8 years. In other words, if you think life is complex now, in three years you’ll have twice as much noise to sift through just to get stuff done.

From a professional standpoint, business practices and assumptions constantly become obsolete, but most of us never see the new trends emerging. As all the statistics suggest, the problem is not a lack of data on which to base our assessment.

Indeed, according to Trends newsletter, more unique information was created in the last couple of years alone than is accessible from all prior human existence combined. It’s incredible to think about and even more so to comprehend.

The lesson to be learned here is that about 80% of communication has a major problem: the information doesn’t require action, or it requires action but there are no consequences of doing nothing. My suggestion for cutting through the data smog is to be more selective in personal media consumption with a goal of using it, not simply perusing it.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Savoring the Sabbath

A timely cure for our harried and hurried times is a Scripture that is always in season: “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” For too many, remembering the Sabbath has been a drudgery more than a delight, yet it was designed to be a blessing not a curse.

Indeed, it is a timeless solution for modern maladies like sleep deprivation and other stress disorders. For as Gordon Dahl noted, “Most middle class Americans tend to worship their work, to work at their play, and to play at their worship.”

Judith Shulevitz, writing in The New York Times, observed that “the Sabbath, the one day in seven dedicated to rest by divine command, has become the holiday Americans are most likely never to take.”

In her articulate call to savor the Sabbath, Shulevitz suggested that, “the Sabbath is to the week what the line break is to poetic language. It is the silence that forces you to return to what came before to find its meaning. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.”

I am reminded often of the mantra from my favorite jazz station: “relax, refresh, renew.” Such words of wisdom may fall on deaf ears much of the time, but to me it is not only music to my ears but also a salve for my soul.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Countering the Critics

With more than 100 million books in print in the United States the last dozen years, best-selling author John Grisham personifies publishing prowess. Yet the critics still hound him doggedly, as if commercial success somehow disqualifies someone from being considered legitimately good at their craft.

To his credit, Grisham generally tries not to pay the critics much attention. “I’ve sold too many books to ever be taken seriously by critics,” he told the Associated Press. “What I think about is making the best book I’ve ever written. That’s my goal every time.”

I think that is an attitude worth emulating and it reminds me of a quote attributed to Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” While I’m on the subject of Grisham, I must admit that I like his sense of priorities also. Included below is an insightful excerpt from his interview with the Associated Press.

“His workday usually begins at 6 a.m., when he walks out to a small cottage behind his home and writes about 10 pages by noon. The cottage has no telephone, no fax machine and nothing to distract him but two slips of paper hanging on his wall—his children’s sports schedules. ‘I guess you can see what’s important,’ said Grisham. ‘We never miss a game.’”

As Grisham’s comment indicates, family is forever while fame is fleeting, so we need to treat them accordingly. This reminds me of a thought-provoking Scripture: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” [What is dearest to him, in other words.] It’s food for thought.