We are inclined to unity

I’ve always been amazed watching animals in nature instinctively moving in sync — in harmony — with one another. It could be hundreds of birds in flight, fish swimming, herds running. Each one is so in tune with the movement of the others around them that their behavior seems scripted — orchestrated.

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We humans are instinctively capable of finding unity too. When we walk in groups, we often adjust our pace to be in step with those around us. In crowds, we start out handclapping on our own, but within seconds, hundreds of us can clap in unison.

When’s the last time you participated in a stadium wave? It takes only a handful of clustered people to stand and raise their arms in unison. Spontaneously, the people seated in the section next to them know precisely when it is their time to mimic the action. Soon the rhythm of the wave is coursing around the stadium until it loops a few times and the energy dies out.

Also, think about sporting events where you get caught up in the chanting of the crowd. Sparked by enthusiasm, choruses ring out in unison, chanting the encouraging, “I believe that we will win!” or the great-play celebration, “Olé, Olé, Olé” or the ever taunting, very specific, “Air Ball!”

One of my favorite examples is a live performance I watch on TV of Paul McCartney enchanting his concert audience with the Beatles’ biggest #1 hit song, “Hey Jude.” The song itself is about optimism and togetherness, and the coda’s repetitive “nah, nah, nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, hey Jude” is like a heartfelt lullaby. This along with the crowd’s raised arms waving and clapping in unison. I wanted very much to be there in the moment among everyone.

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These forms of unity get us involved in the excitement, bring us together as a crowd, and remind us that our enjoyment of this event and our presence in this moment make us one. We feel connected. This increases our empathy, and we become more sociable to one another.

…so then why does it feel like these days so many people are trying to divide us?

The world has been changing always. Evolving. Advancing. And while many of us need some time to adjust to change, it feels like a large portion of people have come to a dead stop. They’ve thrown out their anchors, settled into their box-shaped comfort zones, and are refusing to pursue unity with anyone outside of their “kind.”

I see these separatists as people who will turn their backs on others without giving them a chance to express their ideas or perspective. I feel separatists are not open to alternative points of view; they believe all others are simply wrong. Rather than rising up to accept people for what they have in common with others, separatists want to sink down and find the line that severs their connections to others.

In my heart, I’m a unifier. I want to know more about people who are different than me so that my outlook and perspective can grow and become more diverse. I want to learn from people who have had different experiences than me. Relying on their examples, I can avoid mistakes or achieve success that I otherwise would not have known about. And my acknowledgement of their experiences gives them validation that they’ve improved others’ lives through their own.

Here are some examples of how a separatist sees personal differences vs. a unifier:

Personal Difference
Two people are sports fans, but for rival teams.
The Separatist
Feels only the rivalry; sees the other as an “enemy.”
The Unifier
Wants to connect based on how much they both love this sport. “Who’s your favorite player?” “Let’s set a friendly wager!”

When you think of NBA player rivalries, hardly any other is bigger than Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird and the Lakers’ Magic Johnson. They first competed against one another in an NCAA championship game between Indiana and Michigan States, respectively. As pros, they competed against each other in the NBA finals three times. Both players are in the NBA Hall of Fame. With such fierce competition between them, you’d think they’d have often wished the worst for their rival. Instead they were and still are the best of friends.

In a book they published together, When the Game Was Ours, Johnson tells how they went from being rivals to being friends, “Then Larry and I sat down for lunch, and I tell you, we figured out we’re so much alike. We’re both from the Midwest, we grew up poor, our families [are] everything to us, basketball is everything to us. So that changed my whole outlook on Larry Bird.”

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Personal Difference
Two people want to improve life in their communities, but they align with different political parties.
The Separatist
Cannot “cross the aisle” in order to prioritize their common goals.
The Unifier
Is interested in collaborating and will listen to opposing viewpoints in order to develop the most-well-rounded solution.

In 1997, I volunteered as an usher for a national summit that led to the formation of America’s Promise Alliance. The objective was to improve the lives of millions of at-risk youths. The reason I was attracted to the event is because it was co-convened by political opposites, Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. As stated by President Clinton, the goal of the summit was “to mobilize America’s citizen power in a united effort to solve our common problems, especially those that threaten our young people.”

Over the past 20+ years, the alliance has accumulated nearly 400 corporate, private, non-profit, education, and faith-based partners.

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Personal Difference
Two people each have goals to unite and inspire others, but they are not of the same religion.
The Separatist
Chooses to work alone as the other is “misguided” or “misinformed.”
The Unifier
Wants to broaden their perspective in order to develop messages that people can relate to on many levels.

I’d been reading a book called The Book of Joy, which is co-authored by Tibetan Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the 300-page book, I dog-eared just one page for the message that most resonated with me, a quote from the Dalai Lama:

“If we stress secondary level of differences–my nation, my religion, my color–then we notice the differences. Like this moment now in Africa, there is too much emphasis on this nation or that nation. They should think that we are same Africans. Furthermore, we are same human beings. Same with religion: Shiite and Sunni, or Christian and Muslim. We are same human beings. These differences between religions are personal matters. When we relate to others from the place of compassion it goes to the first level, the human level, not the secondary level of difference. Then you can even have compassion for your enemy.”

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Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know

We can’t be judgmental of separatists. Some people have been raised to believe their parents’ and greater family’s ways and beliefs are the only correct choice. Or they commit such loyalty to a group or organization that they shut out any outsiders or new ideas.

Similarly, even open minded people don’t know what they don’t know until they make a conscious effort to focus on the “new” or the “other.”

I recently watched a video that is part of a series launched by former NFL player and current sports analyst Emmanuel Acho. This was following the wave of racial unrest ignited in America. In the video, TV personalities Chip and Joanna Gaines bring their children to Acho to ask him questions about racial relations.

Chip relayed a story about how he and his family had not had a lot of experience with cancer, but a few years ago he met a woman with cancer who conveyed her story to him about what life is like as a cancer patient. Then he and the family became advocates for cancer patients and their families, and have supported a lot of cancer-related initiatives since then.

He said, “…once I learned about it and understood it and it affected my soul, I couldn’t unforget it.”

He said it was the same kind of light-bulb moment when he realized he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black person or part of a black family living in America.

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Many people — myself included — had simply never felt the need or desire to think this way. But now that this issue has come front and center (again), this may be the start of a greater level of social equilibrium.

People who are willing to let go of fear and anger, who are willing to be seen as vulnerable and still learning have the most to gain in this world and have the greatest potential to bring the rest of us with them toward empathy, compassion, and love.

Let’s move forward together

Balance is the key to harmony. We’re in this boat together. I may prefer the view on the starboard side while you prefer the view on the port side, but if you row your oar at a different rate than I’m rowing mine, we’re just going to keep moving in a circle. We each can have our own points of view and still move forward together in unity. For the greater good, you have to be willing to try.

Thank you for spending these moments with me, thinking about life. If you like what you’ve read, I’d love for you to share it. Spread some seeds…


3 priorities a panda taught me

There’s a lot to be said about the lessons we adults can learn (or be reminded of) when reading children’s books. And why not? Children’s books teach about kindness and friendships, sharing, caring, exploring, learning. They engage imaginations and open minds to possibilities and wonder.

When we become adults with responsibilities and pressures, we think we have to let go of childish ways in order to survive the real world. Truth be told, so much of those childhood lessons are exactly what we need to live by, but somehow they get lost in yesteryear.

Young girl reading a book
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The children’s book that taught me how to act like an adult

When my kids were in daycare, they’d bring home book catalogs. I ordered books for them every single time. I kept the books that I hope to read again to my grandkids one day. But in the meantime, there’s one particular book that I keep at the ready for me.

It’s called Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth (published by Scholastic in 2005). It’s about three siblings who befriend a large panda named Stillwater. While the friends are spending time together, Stillwater tells them stories that relate to everyday life. The stories he’s telling them are actual centuries-old Chinese parables.

Reading the book to my kids, they connected with the children and the large, peaceful bear. I, on the other hand, soaked in the parables. To this day, I still rely on them to help me adjust my perspective when holding too tightly to stress.

Stuffed panda toy with the handwritten words "love yourself."
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The package of panda parables

Here are Stillwater’s three stories and how they continue to help me:

  • Uncle Ry and the Moon – Uncle Ry is based on a Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk named Ryōkan Taigu. In the story, Uncle Ry places no value on his material possessions. He values selflessness — putting others’ needs above his own. When a robber comes into his home, Uncle Ry gives him his last possession — his robe. Feeling bad that the robber is in need of things he doesn’t have, Uncle Ry wishes he had something more beautiful to give the robber, like the moon.

Recalling this story helps me when I want to remember that the people in my life are more important to me than the things around me. I rely on Uncle Ry to remind me that people come first and, although we don’t have to literally give people the shirt off our back, helping people who are in need is a basic human kindness.

  • The Farmer’s Luck – this Taoist story is probably the most well-known of the three that Stillwater shares. The gist of it is that you can’t tell if luck is good or bad until you see the result of whatever happens next.

A farmer’s horse runs away. Bad luck? It returns with two more horses. Good luck? The farmer’s son breaks one of his legs while trying to tame one of the horses. Bad luck? The army rejects the son as a draftee because of his injury. Good luck?

This story reminds me that you can’t always control what life sends your way, but you can always control how you react to it. You can understand that bad luck doesn’t have to devastate you. You can choose to make the best of it instead. You may end up learning a great lesson because of it, which might mean it was good luck all along.

  • A Heavy Load – this is my favorite of Stillwater’s stories. It’s about a young monk who is silently agitated for hours that a woman does not thank his companion, an older monk, for carrying her across a large puddle. In the end, the old monk says to the young one, “I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

I often say to myself (sometimes even out loud), “Put the woman down!” This is when I realize I’ve been stressing over something needlessly — someone or something that’s not worth the time and energy I’m wasting thinking about it. Or something that’s out of my control to change. It’s time to focus on something more meaningful that is within my control.

Stacked stones in a pink sunset
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In (Zen) short…

Those are the three perspectives that have changed my life. Somehow, in this one simple children’s book, I found the remedy to almost any challenge. In short, my options are to:

  • Decide how this challenge impacts my relationship with the people I love. Do what I must to preserve them. Other than that, nothing else matters.
  • Accept it for what it is and gauge my response in proportion to its relevance in the grand scheme of my life. Over reacting gets me nowhere and is a waste of time and energy.
  • When it’s all said and done, leave it behind and move on.

Thanks to this panda and his groovy Zen shorts, I’m able to enjoy life most days with the peace of mind to keep my priorities and perspectives in check. I hope you are able to find this kind of peace within yourself as well.

Thank you for spending these moments with me, thinking about life. If you like what you’ve read, I’d love for you to share it. Spread some seeds…


Remember the time I humiliated myself at the casino?

This weekend I faced my biggest fear since starting my blog. It’s the sole obstacle that kept me from blogging sooner.

What if I can’t think of anything to write?

Writer’s block. When it happens, I don’t try to strong-arm myself past it; I just let it go, confident that an idea will come to me when the timing and mood is right. But when I still didn’t have an idea a few hours before my self-imposed deadline for this week’s blog, I started getting nervous.

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Then for some strange reason, I remembered a really embarrassing story about something that happened to me all the way back in high school. It’s a story I hadn’t thought about in decades.

That’s when I asked myself, “Am I so bothered by the thought of not publishing a blog each week that I’d rather tell an awkward story about myself than not post anything at all?” You betcha!

Have a nice trip…

I don’t remember what year it was in high school when one of my teachers decided to take our class to a casino-hotel in Atlantic City for a career day field trip. We went to learn about the hospitality industry and the kinds of job opportunities that were available.

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This was back in the day when there was a dress code for being in the casino-hotels. People got spiffed up to go out, and since this was a career day trip, I dressed for the occasion. I wore a suit that was first worn by my big sister.

I’ve always idolized my sister. I tell everyone she is the smarter, prettier, and nicer one. As a kid, I loved wearing her hand-me-down clothes. That suit of hers that I wore was a wool burgundy tweed skirt and jacket. My sister was a homecoming candidate her senior year, and this was the suit she worn to the homecoming football game.

When I reached high school and was able to fit into my sister’s homecoming suit, I felt like I could almost fill her shoes. Only, her shoes were a lot less slippery than mine.

…see you next fall!

The day of the trip, my classmates and I had ridden the one-hour bus drive from our school to the casino-hotel. We had sat through the presentation on hospitality careers and taken a brief tour of the main floors of the hotel. As we were heading back to the school bus, we needed to go down one more floor to the transportation entrance.

To get there was a long, grand stairway with ornate red and gold rugs. Meticulously polished brass railings lined the stairs from top to bottom. Overhead, beautiful crystal chandeliers sparkled like diamonds. And alongside the stairs ran two really long escalators.

At the Atlantic City casino-hotels, about 25 percent of the patrons are senior citizens, and on that day, it seemed like all 25 percent were in that stairway heading back to their buses the same time as us.

My classmates slowed and gathered in line to ride the escalator down. I thought to myself, “Why is everyone waiting for the escalator when there’s this amazing stairway that we can stroll down?”

I thought to myself, “Why is everyone waiting for the escalator where there’s this amazing stairway that we can stroll down?”

Hardly anyone was taking the stairs, so I thought I’d be slick by rushing down and being at the bottom to greet my classmates as they got off the escalator. I began scampering down the stairs in the brand-new burgundy flats that I had bought to match my sister’s suit.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware how slippery the unworn soles were. All of a sudden both of my feet flew out from under me, and I began sliding down the stairs swiftly on my butt.

After bump, bump, bumping down a few steps, one of my shoes flew off and crashed into a brass railing. It struck such a loud and vibrating “bong” that everyone turned to see what was happening.

An old man in front of me spun around in time to see me sledding on my butt straight toward him. His face lit up like he was suddenly remembering his glory days as a baseball catcher, and I was trying to steal home to win the championship.

He uttered a few “Oh! Ohs!” put up his hands and said, “I’ve gotcha, honey!”

Thank God I skidded to a stop before I had a chance to bowl over the sweet old man. Someone else came over to hand me my shoe, and I walked down the rest of the stairs holding tightly to the railing.

All’s well that ends well

You can imagine the jokes I had to listen to from my friends who watched my not-so poised and graceful decent. But I’m pretty sure everyone had forgotten about it by the next day.

So, yes, there is a seed for thought even in this story. It relates to keeping a clear perspective on things in order to overcome fear or stress. The classic “what if” approach can work if you allow yourself to consider, “what if… a week goes by and I don’t have a topic to write about?” Am I more worried that others will see me as a disappointment or that I’ll see me that way? The truth is that either way life will go on.

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Writing my blog is supposed to be fun, but worrying about make-believe deadlines negates the point. So much of what we worry about and put pressure on ourselves for is not life-or-death situations. Yet we get lost sometimes in our perspective and treat them that way anyway. In doing so, we miss out on the joy, beauty, and laughter of life around us.

It’s more important to enjoy life and to laugh at ourselves–at the imperfections of ourselves–than to try being flawless all the time. For example, on that career day field trip, I wanted to appear sophisticated and all grown up, like how I saw my sister in that suit. But I ended up falling down the stairs and having my friends laugh at me.

But what if… I change my perspective just a little bit. I can see it’s possible that both things happened. What if… I achieved the most sophisticated-looking fall of anyone who’s ever gone down a flight of stairs on their butt. And when I stopped, turned and curtsied to the crowd once I was standing solidly at the bottom of the stairs, what if… my ability to laugh at myself was the most grown-up thing I did that day.

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When we put too much pressure on ourselves — especially around things that are supposed to be fun, we’re not enjoying life to its fullest. Life is too short to sweat the small stuff. Give yourself a break. Also, use sandpaper or a nail file to scuff the bottoms of new shoes. They’re less slippery that way.

Thank you for spending these moments with me, thinking about life. If you like what you’ve read, I’d love for you to share it. Spread some seeds…