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We are not afraid.

Attention all bullies, zealots-with-arms, and terrorists of all stripes, domestic and international: WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF YOU. You are cowards, and you have been exposed.

The Age of Questions.

The Age of Questions.

If we can be sure of one thing, it is that we're living in the Age of Uncertainty.

Our economic outlook seems cloudy as we hear our politicians talk about debt, taxes, and cliffs. Our national security seems suspect as we attempt to unravel ten years of war against an amorphous, unseen, unbeatable opponent. Our mental health seems precarious as we deal with the latest shocks to our safety and preconceptions. Our shared values seem most days to be merely a shared willingness to shout at each other on social media.

When I was in high school I remember asking my mother about the Sixties and early Seventies. I was trying to understand the time period around my birth. Was it as interesting as it looked in the books? "It was hard," she said. "It was troubling."

I can't help but thinking that, whether we like it or not, we are in the same kind of period. Perhaps in ten or twenty years we will look back with nostalgia about the better world that was borne from all of this tumult. But right now it just feels troubling.

I was thinking of all of this yesterday in Mass. Yes, I went to church on a Monday morning -- I can't say I wanted to. I went for the funeral of a friend. Someone killed far too young. So many questions. Too many, actually -- too many to even contemplate. 

As the words of the Catholic Mass washed over me I was reminded of a line in Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. A young man had written the great Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke asking for advice on how to make sense of the world. And we learn that Rilke is just as confused as the rest of us. He writes:

Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Why do children die? Why must we torture each other? Why haven't we learned to practice tolerance? How can we value the contribution of each person without forcing our ways upon one another? How can we create a community that applauds achievement and still encourages kindness?  How can we build a country that aspires to its best qualities rather than reducing to its worst?

These are very difficult questions to live. But this is our role. This is our time. I pray we will live our way to the answers so that our children and grandchildren no longer have these questions to bear.

Suspending Skepticism: Ignoring Your Inner Ragdoll

Could it be that the biggest part of learning optimism is just figuring out how to suspend skepticism? Is it that simple?

Suspending skepticism seems like an easy thing — a trite comment, really — but I’ve learned that skepticism is so ingrained in most of us that laying it aside is more difficult than we first imagine. From the first time we hear “You’re too big for that chair!” or “Be careful up there!” or the really insidious “Don’t get your hopes up!”, we start assembling a picture of the world that features a tiny ragdoll at the center (that’s us) surrounded by assorted threats, hazards, and disappointments (everything we think, dream, and wonder about).

I’ve become quite a Disney World supporter over the last few days. I’ve written about the superb customer service, the powerful combination of business and artistic vision, and more than anything, the great experience my kids have had at the various parks. But to be honest, I know enough about Disney that I kind of expected all of those things. I expected to see a fun environment produced by a well-run organization.

What I didn’t expect was the impact that Disney would have on me. I’d find myself passing by a ride or theater or walkway. “Nothing too exciting is back there,” my ragdoll voice would say. And I’d start to walk by when invariably a little child’s hand would grab mine and say, “C’mon Dad — puulllleaaaase?”

The first time I sort of rolled my eyes, re-oriented the stroller, and grudgingly followed. “Okay…” I said, which as everyone knows is Dad Code for “I already know that this is a stupendous waste of time, and soon you will learn that too, and then you will understand my incredible power of divination and will listen to me next time.”

But here’s the thing. It was never a waste of time. The concert with Mickey Mouse, the a cappella American folk singers, the 360-degree movie about China — everything was just, well, surprisingly delightful. Just really wonderful.

And what I noticed is that by the second day I stopped using Dad Code with the kids. “Let’s go!” I’d say. “I bet this is really cool!” And by the third day I stopped listening to my own ragdoll. Frankly, I’m not sure I even would have noticed that until yesterday, when we had three people feeling sick and run-down but had to travel home anyway. I heard the rag doll say “This will be awful. This will be a long and horrible day.” But I heard myself say, “We can do this.” And you know what? All things considered, eight hours of travel with six people went flawlessly.

In my book, the greatest thing about Disney World is that it got me to throw my skepticism into the recycling bin. I stopped looking at doors and saying, “There’s nothing interesting in there.” I stopped looking at people and saying, “They are opposed to me.” And I stopped looking in the mirror and saying, “I need to protect the ragdoll.” Instead I started actively walking towards each walkway, filled with excitement about what was coming next.

How effective would I be if I greeted every single encounter of every single day with that optimism and confidence? If we all did?

This is the biggest memory I hope to keep from Disney World. It could be powerful.

Learning Optimism

Dad says, “That sure looks like a big hill.”
Kids say, “It will be really fun!”
Dad says, “It is pretty cold out here for a water ride.”
Kids say, “We’ll dry off in the sun!”
Dad says, “I’m not sure we have time to do this before lunch.”
Kids say, “The line is really short!”
Dad says, “I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
Kids say, “We’re going to love it!”
Kids say, “Can we go on again?”
Dad says, “Yes!!”

Perspectives on 2012: Putting Facebook In Its Place

This article is the first in a short series of musings about 2012, its opportunities and challenges, and how to best meet them. 

It’s a snowy, cold first Monday of January here in Indiana — and I’m sure I’m the better for it. After twelve days of holiday break, hours of wrapping and unwrapping, countless toy-assembly sessions, a few toy-repair sessions, and lots and lots of play time with the kids, I badly need a day off before the official start of the work year. I need to get myself squared away. From big picture thinking like setting my 2012 goals to fundamental necessities like clearing off my desk (I swear, the wood surface is here somewhere), I need a few hours to decide what is going to be important in the new year. And, what isn’t.

This second subject was the topic of a brief story by Zak Stone in yesterday’s Good (see the bottom of this post for the reference links). Stone relates an effort by web designer Ivan Cash to encourage us to take a bit of time off from the ubiquitous social networking site. It’s a good idea, at least for me, and particularly at this time of the year. It is so easy to get caught up in posting what I’m doing that I don’t actually focus on doing it. And it is equally easy to aimlessly scroll through my news feed, absentmindedly reading about what people are doing — without really connecting to anyone at all.

So, I’ve decided to take the challenge and take a week off from Facebook. The simple absurdity of writing that previous sentence as if it were a momentous decision illustrates why it is worth taking a FB sabbatical!

I’ll admit that the first few minutes were odd — I went to Cash’s link, posted the status update on my profile, and within a couple of seconds a few friends had liked my update. I unconsciously reached for the mouse to see who had commented, and then remembered that I was taking a week off. It is exactly this kind of impulse response that runs counter to accomplishing bigger picture goals, and is at the crux of what Cash and Stone are encouraging us to do.

In organizations and in our personal lives we put a lot of emphasis on setting goals, creating vision, painting a picture, and so forth. But we put far less time to deciding what we won’t do. Focus is a key component of good strategy, whether the strategy involves building a billion-dollar charity or losing that last stubborn ten pounds. And focus means making choices. You can’t be great at everything. 

Don’t get me wrong — I love Facebook, and I think it can be a great conduit for personal connections and for organizational growth. But for most of us, Facebook is just a tool towards a larger end. There’s only one organization which has a goal for you to spend more time on Facebook — and that is Facebook itself. For the rest of us, the goal isn’t to spend more time on the site, but to develop deeper connections. I’m interested to see if staying away helps me do that.

I’ve rambled through a few different topics in only five or six paragraphs, and perhaps that is fitting for a snowy, sleepy start of the new year. I look forward to expanding on these and other ideas throughout the next few months, and as always I appreciate your visit. I wish you the best as you start to outline your priorities for the year ahead.