Not the way we’ve always done it

I had originally planned a different post for today, and that one will still be up later this week. However, several things have happened over the last few days that I wanted to talk about today. First, Saturday was the 92nd anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the American constitution, which guaranteed all American women the right to vote. Second, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that for the first time in twenty years, a woman would be moderating one of the debates. Finally, today the Augusta National Golf Club announced that they were admitting to membership the first women in the history of the club.

At first glance these things may not seem to have much to do with one another: an American history item that most people wouldn’t even be able to identify without consulting their history book from school, a decision about which news media personages will be moderating a debate that a large percentage of people won’t be tuning in to watch, a group of (please pardon the expression, but the description is accurate) mostly older white men in Georgia decide to finally let two women into their club house. However, all three of these things reveal something about how we see women.

In the case of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote, during the decades that it took to get the amendment ratified, the majority of people could not imagine women voting. There were concerns that allowing women to vote would undermine the family structure and threaten traditional male and female roles. People struggled to imagine women voting partially because they’d never seen it before. And, frankly, the critics were right. Allowing women to vote has contributed to changes in how we see the roles of men and women. I believe those changes have been good, for society at large and for individual men and women.

The fact that it’s been twenty years since a women moderated a presidential debate is not the result of having too few qualified candidates. There are many competent, talented female journalists who are capable of performing well in the role. However, it’s far too easy to continue to do things the way we’ve always done them. It’s far too easy to fall back on the “usual suspects,” so to speak, when it comes time to choose someone for a role. In the case of Candy Crowley being identified to moderate one of the debates, this isn’t the result of creative thinking on the part of the Commission. Instead it’s the result of the creative thinking of three female high school students who started a campaign on change.org. If you’ve never heard of change.org, I encourage you to go take a look. I think you’ll see that it is possible to make a difference. (There is an additional conversation to be had about the lack of racial diversity represented by the chosen moderators. Perhaps there are more high school students out there who are ready to start that campaign?)

Finally, the news today that Augusta National had finally admitted women to their membership. I’ve heard all the arguments about how the club is private and should be allowed to set their own membership requirements. I respect the desire to determine one’s own rules for the organizations we belong to. However, Augusta National isn’t just a private organization. As an institution, it holds a tremendous amount of influence in a sport that generates a large amount of money. The club hosts The Masters tournament each year. The members have apparently had trouble imagining what it would look like to have female members. Again, I think this is at least partially because it’s easier to just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them.

Today, I wanted to take a few minutes and celebrate each of these events. To be thankful for the few tenacious (some might say annoyingly stubborn) individuals who had the ability to see things in a way that hadn’t existed before and push to see them happen. As a woman who is benefiting from these changes, I am incredibly grateful.

To perfection

“Grilled to perfection”…..”baked to perfection”…..”framed to perfection”…..”cut to perfection”…..oh my goodness! Really? I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this, but it seems that everywhere you look someone is touting the perfection of their steak, their haircuts, their cupcakes, their cleaning services. You name it and you’ll find someone out there is trying to convince us that their product is perfect.

Ok, first, I have to ask….what do all these people have against adverbs ending in “ly?” I get that these can be overused, but why avoid them entirely? Will people somehow think less of the taste of your cupcakes if you describe them as “perfectly baked morsels of velvety chocolate cake” rather than “chocolate cupcakes baked to perfection?” I don’t entirely understand why, but the phrase “to perfection” just annoys me. Which brings me to my second question, how did we end up deciding that so many things have been done “to perfection” anyway?

According to Merriam-Webster, “perfection” means flawless, possessing unsurpassable excellence or even being saintly.  While I can appreciate someone displaying confidence in their own abilities, there is simply no way the cupcakes or the haircuts or the steaks are flawless nor unsurpassable in their excellence, let alone saintly. (Sorry, talking about less than saintly chocolate cupcakes has, of course, caused my mind to wander over to devil’s food cake….completely distracted…..ok, I’m back now.)

I understand that I have “a thing” about the words “to perfection.” However, I believe this drive to describe so many things as perfect says something not entirely humorous about our society. I wonder whether the years of focusing on building self-esteem by giving everyone a trophy for participating are resulting in our decreasing understanding of what unsurpassable excellence truly looks like. I wonder whether our overuse of “to perfection” is a symptom of our collectively decreasing vocabulary and reading skills and, therefore, also our increasingly limited ability to describe how we experience life. I also wonder whether our overuse of “to perfection” is a result of marketing inundation. Perhaps only something declared flawless can hope to break through the cacophony of marketing noise and grab enough attention to sell, whether it’s a product or a political candidate.

This makes me think of a game we played as kids that went something like this. First kid, “I’m so strong, I can carry my little sister and she weighs 20 pounds.” To which the second kind replies, “that’s nothing. I’m so strong I can carry 100 pounds.” First kid, “well, I can carry 100 million pounds.” The second kid then wins with the ultimate argument, “well, I can carry to infinity pounds!” The kids didn’t have to know what infinity actually means. They understood that you can’t get any bigger than infinity. “To perfection” seems like the grown up version of “to infinity,” it’s the ultimate argument winner. The down side, of course, is that if we begin to believe that even ordinary things are flawless, we may no longer be able to acknowledge or even recognize when there’s still room for improvement.

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder….

As we enter the second week of Olympics coverage, I’ve been mulling over the concept of winners, losers and rooting for the underdog. If the old adage “everyone loves a winner” is true, a corollary that many of us seem to take great pleasure in is seeing the underdog win. I’m one of those who loves to see the unlikely, the overlooked, or the just plain unknown person who has worked as hard as the marquee name surprise everyone by pulling out the unexpected win. (Greg Rutherford, anyone? Go ahead. Google his name. What you find will leave you smiling, trust me.)

I’ve spent most of my life pulling for the underdog. Lately I’ve begun to recognize a few side effects that can hinder my own ability to be successful. I find that when presented with different options for achieving my goal, I can unconsciously pick the harder course of action. I think it comes down to an underlying belief that “winning,” when you’ve chosen the harder course, is somehow more valuable. I’ve watched people set up situations where they don’t use all the resources available to them just to prove that they can overcome odds that others couldn’t and are therefore more valuable or capable. Instead of playing to their strengths and choosing the path that lets them use their strongest assets, they’re put in the position of making things harder than they have to be. Why sabotage ourselves this way?

Another way we sabotage our own success is to spend time focusing on what we’re doing wrong. Athletes and sports psychologists talk about “do the do” not the “don’t.” The idea is to stop focusing on the point where the golf swing is breaking down or replaying the memory of touching the wall 0.02 seconds too late to win the swimming race. Instead, spend time visualizing the golf swing you’re trying to emulate. Create a mental video of yourself touching the wall first. These athletes have found that when they focus their thoughts on the actions they don’t want to take, they actually end up repeating the same errors. However, by focusing their thoughts on the actions they want to take, they fundamentally improve their performance.

An organizational development coach I worked with frequently used the phrase “do the do” but in a different context. She encouraged teams to move past merely performing actions and tasks, and to keep incorporating the desired attitudes and behaviors until their perspective was impacted, essentially transitioning from “do the do” to “be the be.” From a spiritual life perspective, focus first on being who and what you want to be, then your actions will flow out of your internal identity. For example, if you want to be a caring and giving person, focus first on seeing yourself as generous. The act of giving will flow out of that identity.

(Oh, and for those who didn’t recognize the reference, the title of this post is the opening lyric of the theme song for Underdog….not that live action, marginally entertaining version from 2007, but the truly inspired animated version from the early 60s. What? You say you’re not familiar with that one? Umm….YouTube!)

photo: thejtrain

Full disclosure

People write for many reasons. Some say they can’t help themselves, they need to write in the same way that they need to breathe or eat. Some are polishing their writing skills by writing blogs so they can be better writers in general. Some people write because they are driven to make their case about a pressing social issue. Some people write because that’s how they process their thoughts and emotions. Some people just like to tell stories.

There is a difference between writing something for personal reasons and writing something for public consumption. The process of deciding how much of your writing to share with others is unique to the individual writer. Which brings me to the tricky question of figuring out how transparent to be in my own writing. I know the power of honest writing, transparent and authentic. I love Brennan Manning’s writing for this very reason. He shares honestly from his own journey as a former priest and recovering alcoholic, and I reap the benefits of his wisdom and experience. However, for me the whole idea of transparency presents a challenge.

I am a PK. The acronym stands for “preacher’s kid.” Frequently a learned reluctance to self-disclose is among the many consequences for anyone growing up in the goldfish bowl of a pastor’s home. My personal goldfish bowl had the added circumstance of being part of a very conservative and legalistic religious tradition. This kind of tradition tends to discourage transparency since every revealed shortcoming has the potential to bring harsh judgment and condemnation, up to and including questioning whether or not you’re “really saved.” No small threat there!

When I was a kid, I fell in love with the television program “Star Trek.” It had the most amazing stories. The characters were committed to one another and together they faced danger and death on a regular basis. More than anything else, I wished I could be a member of this team of smart, adventurous and caring individuals who never met a society-controlling computer they couldn’t dismantle….all within the confines of a one-hour episode. Wonderful stuff!!

One of the most fascinating things that happened in the Star Trek world was something called a “Vulcan mind meld.”  (And for those of you who are Star Trek fans, yes, the pun was intentional.) Essentially two individuals were able to directly share their thoughts, emotions and memories without the need of a spoken language. I was intrigued by the possibility of communication without misunderstanding, the opportunity to completely understand someone else’s perspective and experience. We all seem to be entranced by the idea of knowing and being known. I love this quote from Joseph Pine: “The experience of being understood versus interpreted is so compelling you can charge admission.”

I have begun to wonder, though, whether my assumption that being able to effectively read the mind of another person would actually make honest communication easier. I don’t think it’s so much the mechanism of communication that matters. It’s being willing to risk transparency that matters.

Fifty Shades of Grey? No, thanks

“Even black and white are just extreme shades of gray.” This was typically my final comment in the ongoing debate I had several times with my sister regarding the existence of absolutes in life. She was and is of the opinion that life is to be lived within a clearly defined set of moral absolutes. I attempted (and utterly failed) to convince her that almost every application of any moral absolute actually comes down to a matter of perspective. That in fact most, if not all of life, is filled with an infinite number of shades of gray.

Freeze frame, fast forward a couple of decades to the publication this year of the “Fifty Shades Trilogy.” One would think based on the title alone that this series would appeal to me. I love to read. I read many book reviews, browse through bookstores and listen to the recommendations of friends when considering what books to choose. Since the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series is sitting on top of many best seller lists, there are numerous reviews being published for it, plus tons of media attention. It’s also generating many heated discussions. Some who’ve read the books describe them as harmless “summer beach read” entertainment. Some who’ve read the books, and many who haven’t, are sure the books are a sign of the death of morality in our culture.

After reading reviews of the series (like these from The Guardian, Huffington Post and the New York Times), and looking through several online discussions about the books (like these from Christianity Today, Pure Freedom and Jenny Rae Armstrong’s blog), I’ve decided I won’t be reading these books. There are many reasons for this. For example the bondage/dominance/sadism/masochism (BDSM) scenes of interaction between the two characters are not something I want replaying in my mind’s eye, and I believe could contribute to numbing my sensitivity to the very real circumstance of physical and sexual abuse against women that is prevalent worldwide. Also I have heard some women say that the books are really just pornography for women and, since men have used pornography throughout history, women are merely expressing their equality by embracing their own kind of “mommy porn.” Pornography has a hugely damaging affect on the lives of men and women and I’m not interested in spreading its acceptance in any format. (Setting up unrealizable expectations, reducing women from their place as valued humans to objects to be possessed, and creating barriers to true intimacy are just a start of the problems unleashed by porn usage.) However, my primary reason for rejecting this series is similar to why I reject Debi Pearl’s books and others like them which are popular among some Christian fundamentalists.  These books put forward variations on the idea that a woman’s value proceeds from the supposed redeeming power of her willing submission to a man’s authority, specifically her husband’s. The story arc of Fifty Shades depicts a man’s eventual redemption as the result of the willing submission of a woman who enters into a BDSM relationship with him.

Regardless of the source of this idea, either fundamentalist patriarchalism or fan lit eroticism (the Fifty Shades of Grey series started life online as slash/fic in the Twilight genre, with Edward and Bella as the protagonists), the pictures it paints provide such pale imitations of what the true value of women looks like. To understand how God sees women, I look at how Jesus interacted with women. As a rabbi in first century Palestine, he spent a previously unheard of amount of time talking with women, ministering to women, treating women as valued members of his group of followers. He saw women as valuable in and of themselves, not in how they related to the men in their lives. The idea of a woman’s value being in her submission to male authority is so much less than what God intended for women, and therefore less than what I’m willing to accept. Being valued for myself….that’s a moral absolute I can embrace, no shades of gray required.