Don’t Apologize For Your Strength

Recently, a person I admire asked me to tell another person some of the lessons I’ve learned from my leadership experiences. I wanted to come up with a better answer than:

To stop saying, “I’m sorry” all the time.

But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized the truth of them. Apology is as reflexive as breathing for me. If someone bumps into me, I’m immediately apologizing. When someone robbed my house, I apologized to the investigating officer for inconveniencing him by making him fill out paperwork.

When I became a team leader, one of my first leadership experiences, I spent most meetings as a mute, afraid to say anything that might upset people. As a department chair, I found myself prefacing a lot of meetings with: I’m sorry to take up your time… From my office at the district, many of my emails begin: “I’m sorry for the delay in responding…”

I’m aware that this constant atonement on my part is as annoying as the smell of cheap perfume. Some of the mea culpas, I’m sure, are due to my own neuroses, but I wonder how much is society’s conditioning? Research shows that we respond more favorably to women who exhibit their gender stereotype of empathy or behaving more emotionally. How much  of my internal pressure to ask for constant forgiveness is a form of benevolent sexism? This is often perceived as a tacit demand that women with even the smallest amount of positional power be hypervigilant of the moods and reactions of others.

If you don’t believe me about that last part, try this experiment that I’ve found replicates the same results over and over: The next time you’re at dinner with a mixed gender group, notice the body language of the men and women. Especially when someone is speaking. Men tend to lean back in their chairs, their comments directed to one other man at the table. Women on the other hand, lean forward, looking at everyone seated, scanning faces to gauge reactions. It’s present in vocal tone, as well. Men tend to make flat statements; women tend to put imaginary question marks at the ends of their sentences, as if they are asking permission to have the thought or opinion.

I’m not saying this always happens, but it happens enough in my experience that it’s noticeable.

As an antidote to the river of guilt that issues from me, I’ve begun trying to reframe my ideas around the concept of responsibility. I want to broaden my own understanding of the links between it and freedom. Constant apologizing creates a prison of my own making, every sorry is a brick of my own repression. So after five decades of feeling bad about breathing other people’s air and encroaching on other people’s space, it’s high time I choose to shut my damn mouth. It’s time to own my choices – the ones that gave me a profession, titles, respect, and accomplishment.

And I’m not a damn bit sorry for any of it.

 

   Day 6: What I’ve Learned About Responsibility, Choice & Strength

  1. “In a very real sense, by the time we are adult, we are the sum total of the choices we have made…One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes…in the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Soren Kierkegaard
  3. “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” Moliere
  4. “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” Martin Buber
  5. “Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.” W.H. Auden
  6. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare
  7. “Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Photo credit: ericfoltz via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

How To Pay Rent For Being Alive

After my father died suddenly nine years ago, I thought I was a model of stoic grief. I wrote his obituary, delivered his eulogy, and I believed, tastefully handled the sadness that spread over the week of his funeral. None of that prepared me for the suffocating depression that overtook me like viral pneumonia six months later.

I didn’t realize that grief is a tsunami and what looks like low tide is really a gathering wave. When the full force of the loss hit me, I could only manage to lie in bed and cycle through alternating periods of crying or apathy. After weeks of this, the only thing breaking through paralysis was anger. It settled in the center of my chest, near my heart, warping my personality, overriding my senses to see and believe that everything was black and hollow.

A tiny pilot light of hope somewhere inside my head reminded me that books are my best medicine. “Why don’t you find a book that will make this make sense to you? If it makes some sense, then maybe you’ll start to feel better” it seemed to suggest.

And that is how I came to read Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the few books to change not only my thinking, but my life. Written in 1959 by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, the book describes his understanding of why certain people, like himself, survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The short version is a paraphrase of Nietzsche: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.”

For Frankl, the “why” centers on three actions: engaging in meaningful work, caring for another person, and courage in the face of fear. These choices – and they are a deliberate choice, Frankl believes, are what give our lives purpose and meaning. Reading the book helped me to choose a loving action, even if it were something as small as being able to smile at my daughter or be brave enough to get dressed for work. Reconnecting to why I decided to teach who and where I did helped me find my way out of the despair. Most of what I know about how to live a life of purpose and meaning, I learned from his book. For me, purpose and meaning come from connections to my family and friends, engaging in the meaningful work of teaching and working with teachers, and in choosing to feel the fear, but still do whatever it is that scares me.

Day Four: What I’ve Learned About Service

  1. “…being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”  – Viktor Frankl
  2. “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” Shirley Chisholm
  3. “I don’t know what your destiny will be. Some of you will perhaps occupy remarkable positions. Perhaps some of you will become famous by your pens, or as artists. But I know one thing: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” – Albert Schweitzer
  4. “What is to give light must endure burning.” – Viktor Frankl
  5. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” Gandhi
  6. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
  7. “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men – go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families… Walt Whitman

My challenge: Pick something off of Whitman’s list and create a small act of service to it.

Photo via Visual hunt

There’s Always Enough Time

When I was in eleventh grade, my English teacher, against her better judgement, set up a record player for me during our third period (Can you imagine, kids – a time before Spotify and earbuds? When vinyl wasn’t just cool, it was literally the only music storage device we had?) This setup happened so I could play “Time”  & “The Great Gig In The Sky” by Pink Floyd to illustrate my understanding of “stream of consciousness” as a literary device. I didn’t really know if the song met that criteria, I just wanted an excuse to play Pink Floyd at school.

The song spoke to me at 16 because it described a feeling I couldn’t quite put into words. Maybe I should’ve been reading more and maybe I would’ve found a deep river of melancholy in classic works. But I was a 16-year-old odd duck who read the liner notes on albums and thought the secrets of the universe reveal themselves through the stereo needle on each groove.

Both tracks take about 15 minutes to play, so I was doubly heroic to my classmates for both getting a famous stoner album played in class as well as taking up class time. I was clueless about its association with drugs, I just knew it haunted me in a way that other rock music didn’t. This is partly the genius of Alan Parsons, the album’s sound engineer, and partly because of  Clare Torry’s powerful wordless singing.

Still today, I find these lines meaningful:

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

This couplet describes the borders of my daily experience with time and focus. Within those borders are work and rest and trying to balance the two is something I still can’t manage very well. I’m such a poor steward of the time given to me. I’m either burning up hours trying to keep all the commitments I’ve overloaded myself with or wasting them trying to find the exact otter GIF to text someone. I binge watch shows on Netflix I don’t really like that much (The Walking Dead being the chief time suck in this category). I don’t read books like I used to, preferring instead to skim Internet sources like an over-caffeinated squirrel. 

One thing that a birthday teaches you is that you have fewer spins around the sun left to you with each celebration. But it’s also true that, as Og Mandino says below, I can always undo these extremes of waste and worry in the next hour because time is the one thing we each have in our account in the same measure every day.

Day Three: What I’ve Learned About Time

  1. “Each of us has, as my husband’s rather grim-faced ancestress pointed out, all the time there is. Those years, weeks, hours, are the sands in the glass running swiftly away. To let them drift through our fingers is a tragic waste.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.” Og Mandino
  3. “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”
    Henry Van Dyke
  4. “No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”  Epictetus
  5. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” JRR Tolkien
  6. “Time is a game played beautifully by children.” Heraclitus
  7. “Furthermore, as muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, it could be argued that those who sit quietly and do nothing are making one of the best contributions to a world in turmoil.” Alan Watts 

Sometimes, the best thing you can do with your time is to follow Van Dyke’s advice and love someone or something as a way to feel the expansive luxury of the time given to you.

My challenge to you is to create something loving – whether it’s another piece of a passion project or a text to someone who needs to hear from you.

Next post: Service

Photo credit: phil.shen.2020 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Learning To Fight What Scares You

Fear is a central fact of my life and my ever-present companion. From the time I noticed that my list for Santa didn’t include the Barbies, makeup or other things the girls in my class wanted,  I knew I was different. No other girl asked for a chemistry set, a BB gun, and walkie-talkies. That, along with the stacks of Spiderman comics in my closet, set me apart and made me afraid that I wasn’t the kind of girl anyone in my family expected.

This led into a pernicious and lingering fear of being judged. When you grow up Southern Baptist, there’s a particular way to gossip about people and still seem godly: the prayer chain. It sounds kind of like this: 

“Lord, we just want to raise up Lorene’s daughter, Father God, and her drinking. Lord Jesus, we grieve that her babies have different daddies, even though all the men she knows are nice…”

For my Meemaw’s sake, I knew a baseline expectation for me was to stay off the prayer chain. Waiting in line at the grocery store in my small town, I heard people talking about my parents. They were one of the first couples to get a divorce – and it was an epic, operatic production involving both those in high standing and those in low places. I learned to achieve to distract away from all the unpleasant truths about my parents and myself. 

Those fears about myself solidified into one central truth: I wasn’t the girl anyone expected me to be because I am a girl who loves girls. That fear of knowing I am gay metastasized into shame.

And that shame is inked into me like a tattoo, burrowed into my bones like arthritis, a taproot of guilt that burrows right into the center of me. You don’t get that out of you overnight. Brene Brown says we measure shame and guilt in people by the way they talk to themselves and the messages they give themselves.

My fear is borne out in messages I’ve fought even today. Fear that boils down to the basic belief that I am not good enough. It creates a strong pull towards being that worst of all F words: Fake. Faking whatever I need to be to make myself somewhat presentable and acceptable, no matter how painful, has been a long act.

But what I’ve learned most about overcoming fear is that even though it’s familiar, it’s also fuel. The same energy that threatens to paralyze me is the same energy that can be turned toward fighting what scares me.

Being authentic is a choice. Being brave is a choice. I’m grateful for books and the ability to find my literary role models. That’s one of the reasons literacy is so powerful because you find that others fight – and win – the same battles.

As promised, here are seven more things I’ve learned after 52 birthdays that I’m sharing this week. These are seven authors who helped me turn fear into faith.

Day Two:  The Best Things I’ve Learned About Fear

  1. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”- Eleanor Roosevelt
  2. “Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, – “Always do what you are afraid to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  3.          “The Litany Against Fear 

           I must not fear.
           Fear is the mind-killer.
           Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
           I will face my fear.
           I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
          And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
          Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
          Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert

  1. “You have plenty of courage, I am sure” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.” L. Frank Baum

5. “The very cave you are afraid to enter

            turns out to be the source of

            What you were looking for.

            The damned thing in the cave

            that was so dreaded

            has become the center.”   – Joseph Campbell

6. “Our courage grows for things that affect us deeply, things that open our hearts. Once our heart is engaged, it is easy to be brave.” Margaret Wheatley

  1. “I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert

These quotes are a mantra for me; their words wrapped around me like armor, making me brave and bold when I am scared and ashamed.

Next post: Time

Photo by Tom Margie/CC BY 2.0

Yes You Can Get Smarter Every Year

Birthdays, in my experience, become more odd the older you get. My friend Gini, when I told her I would be 52 this year, said: “Your fifties – you just live them. You’re not old or young. I never remembered how old I was in my fifties.”

So, on this even birthday year, I decided to make it more memorable by writing about things I’ve learned. My inspiration for this came from Srinivas Rao and Eleanor RooseveltI’m always inspired by her and I decided to give myself time to reread her slim, yet profound book:  You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys For a More Fulfilling Life . Written in 1960 when she was 76, Roosevelt positions her ideas around the practice of lifelong learning because, she writes, When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense.”

Rather than write a tedious or hokey clickbait post like “52 Things I Learned in 52 Years” (an actual title idea I abandoned), I decided to rely on my old teacher practice of chunking information. So instead of 52 things all at once, I’ll space them out in Seven-A-Day shorter posts each day this week with some bonus material on Sunday to round out the number.

Another feature of this post: the author’s names are links are to the books where I found the source material, so these bullets also function as a recommended reading list. Most of the titles are available at your library (find them with this awesome tool), free through Google’s massive project to scan classic works, or dirt cheap on Amazon.

Day One: The Best Things I’ve Learned About Learning

  1. Be present and curious via Eleanor Roosevelt – “To this day I do not feel I have had a career. What I have done is to live every experience to the utmost. As I look back, I think probably the factor which influenced me most in my early years was an avid desire, even before I was aware of what I was doing, to experience all I could as deeply as I could.”
  2. Learning helps you feel better via T.H. White  – “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
  3. Learning makes you “bulletproof” via Alvin Toffler – “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”    
  4. You give yourself permission to learn via Mark Twain – “Never let formal education get in the way of your learning. ”     
  5. Don’t act like the smartest person in the room via Lord Chesterfield – “Never seem more learned than the people you are with. Wear your learning like a pocket watch and keep it hidden. Do not pull it out to count the hours, but give the time when you are asked.”     
  6. Everyone knows something you don’t via Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Shall I tell you a secret of a true scholar? It is this: every man I meet is my master in some point and in that I learn from him.”
  7. The person doing the work is the person doing the learning via Friedrich Nietzsche –  “The doer alone learneth.”

A birthday challenge from me to you: write your own list of learnings and share a link to it, or share your favorite quotes in the comments. Action creates its own motivation, so if you’ve been thinking about writing, consider this an invitation to get moving on one small idea.

Next post: Fear

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