23 November 2016


We all have been given an amazing gift on this planet, and that gift lies in the differences between us.  The perspectives that each person has are completely unique to each individual--even though we often decide to share certain things with others with whom we live--and if we truly respect those differences and try to learn what they are, they can teach us new and exciting ways of seeing our world.  When we decide that someone else is simply "wrong" because they don't see the world as we see it, then we close off any chances that we have to learn from them, instead becoming victims of our own ignorance and judgment.

We have many, many lessons in nature and art that show us quite clearly that diversity is much more to be desired than conformity.  What would a painting look like if every color were the same, if it weren't given the opportunity to work with the other colors to stand out next to this one, to complement this other one, to create its own message?  One of the reasons that flowers are so beautiful is because they have subtle differences that distinguish them from each other, even when they look similar at first glance--and they always have the green of their leaves and stalks to complement the colors and shapes that they show the world.  And what if all our foods tasted the same?  We accept fully the fact that our foods should taste different, but somehow we find it disturbing or uncomfortable that other human beings should see the world differently from us.

Just as many threads work together to form a beautiful tapestry or the many blocks make up a quilt, it takes many individuals to make up a community.  We've come to believe somehow that the fewer differences in opinion or perspective we have among members of communities, the fewer problems we'll have in those communities.  Because of this mistaken belief, we've striven to keep our communities stable by keeping out people who might be "different" from us.  We've even created myths or rumors to share with others so that the others also will believe that it would be bad to let these people into our communities.
If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values,
we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and
so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each
diverse human gift will find a fitting place.

Margaret Mead
And just what do we lose when we keep people out of our lives because of their skin color, religious beliefs, or ethnic heritage?  Mostly, we lose the opportunity to learn from someone else who sees the world in different ways.  We lose the chance to learn from rich cultural heritages that these people have spent their lives learning from, and that they can now pass on to us.

Think about it this way:  If four people from completely different backgrounds were to get together for the very first time and have only twelve hours to spend together, what would be the best way for them to spend their time?

Should they spend those twelve hours discussing life and lessons that they have learned about it, learning from each other as they do so?

Or should they spend those twelve hours telling why what they think is right, and arguing that what the other three think is wrong?

When we're faced with diversity in thought and perspective, we often spend so much of our time trying to prove that our perspective is the "right" one that we don't take the chance to learn about other perspectives, and perhaps even modifying our own perspectives a bit based on what we learn.

One small example in my life was that as I grew up in America, I learned that it's perfectly fine to use the insult as humor, trying to make other people laugh by insulting someone.  Five years in Europe, though, taught me that this kind of humor is really mean, not funny--and the laughter that comes from it is based more on fear and feelings of superiority than it is on humor.  Because of what I learned by living in other cultures, I've been able to make important decisions about how I relate to other people, and that has made a huge difference in my life.
When you're finally up on the moon, looking back at the earth, all these
differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend and you're
going to get a concept that maybe this is really one world and why the
hell can't we learn to live together like decent people?

Frank Borman
To me, diversity is not about race or ethnic origin--I believe that these are artificial distinctions that we make between human beings in order to differentiate ourselves from others based on the most superficial of criteria.  Where humanity is concerned, skin color means nothing; country of origin means nothing, even gender means nothing.  Yes, there are certain traits that we develop as Russians or Algerians or Australians, or as men or women, but the truth is that in each body of each human a heart is beating, lungs are functioning, and a brain is calculating and considering and dreaming.

Diversity, rather, is a question of the ways that we see and share the world, the ways that we react to stimuli and create the lives that we're living.  Much of the way that we see the world has to do with traits that we've adopted from those people who live around us, and therein lies what we see as "cultural" differences.  But those differences are not inborn in us--rather, they are adopted by us as we grow.  They can be extremely valuable and helpful in understanding other people, but they truly don't define us as human beings.  We tend to use them as our measure of diversity, though, because they're easy to see and to quantify and to understand.

True diversity lies in our uniqueness, the aspects of ourselves that are truly ours alone, the ways that we understand life and living and our relationships with other human beings.  We see this true diversity not by looking at the skin, but by looking in the eyes and realizing that those eyes are the windows to a soul, an amazing being who is different than us, and who can teach us a great deal if we only take the chance to listen.
Some people do things completely differently from the way you would
do them.  It does not mean that they are right or that you are wrong.
It means that people are different.  There are things that people say
which you would probably say in a different way, at a different time.
It does not mean that people are wrong to speak up, to speak out, or
to speak their minds.  Nor does it mean that you are wrong for choosing
not to do so.  It means that people are different.  Different is not right
or wrong.  It is a reality.  Differences become problems only when we
choose to measure ourselves by our difference in an effort
to determine who is right and who is wrong.

Iyanla Vanzant
Our cultures and societies are richer and stronger for diversity, not weakened by it.  We will truly benefit from that diversity, though, only when we completely accept the fact that other human beings see life in ways that are different from our ways.  We aren't on this planet to make other people think and feel and act just like we do--we're here to work with others to help to make this world a more positive and more loving place.

We now spend a huge amount of time trying to convince others that our ways of seeing the world are right, and theirs are wrong.  Think about how much we could get done together if we were to stop spending time this way, and instead spend time working together constructively to actually accomplish things that help other people to live their lives in more positive ways.  The shame of not accepting others for who they are and what they believe is that we limit our own potential concerning what we can accomplish in the short time that we're here on this planet.

11 November 2016

Be Good!

I like the words "good" and "goodness."  They're simple words packed with meaning, and almost no two people in the world would agree on just what they mean.  Many people even disagree whether people's actions are motivations are good in their depths or if they're good on the surface.  For example, if a person gives a certain amount of money to a charity to avoid allowing his or her spouse to get that money in a divorce settlement, is the act a good act, or a selfish act?  It may be good that the charity gets the money, but many people want to stop there and not think things through more thoroughly--is it good that the charity gets money that the spouse might have needed desperately, but is now denied?

In such a case, one person's good is another person's bad.  Do the two sides balance out?

I believe that for an act or motive to be good, it truly has to be pure.  In other words, if I do a kind act for a neighbor, it's truly good only if I have absolutely no expectations of any sort of reciprocal benefit.  If I encourage someone, I have no expectations of any sort of thank you or other sign of gratitude.  I do it simply because I know that it's good and because I want to do good.

Because you see, if I do something "good" for you and expect your gratitude or some sort of reward in return, then I'm creating an obligation for you, one that you probably neither want nor need.  And if you don't fulfill that obligation, the results can end up being anger, frustration, and resentment on both of our parts--and how can such a result even remotely be considered good?  And if it ends up with such results, then the "good" of the original action was simply an illusion, not a truth.
So if I want to be good--and I do, even if I'm not sure what it means--I need to be aware of my motives and my desired outcomes for any action that I take.  Am I doing this just because I want to do something good?  If so, there's a good chance that the action I take is, in fact, good.

Being and doing good, I think, is mostly a matter of heart, and much less a matter of mind.  In our hearts, we know when we're doing good and we know when we're doing something to benefit ourselves, and it's important to listen to our hearts when they speak to us.  If we do this, we can be much more sure that what we're doing is, indeed, good.  I may help a neighbor with something to make her feel obligated to send a plate of cookies my way the next time she bakes, but my heart will know that my motive is not pure.  My heart will know it if I'm helping just to help, with no attempt to make her feel obligated.

And if a plate of cookies does appear without any attempt to make her feel obligated, then there's another good act in this world.  If she sends over the cookies because she knows I'm expecting them for having helped her, then just how "good" is her act?

There are, of course, acts that count as mutual goods.  Perhaps my co-worker is having a hard time with a certain task, and it ends up being my task at the end of the day.  Teaching him or her how to do the task and do it well is good for that person and for me, as I'll no longer be expected to take on that task, and I can focus on my own work.

When we examine our motives for doing the things we do, we start to change as people.  When we start to try to do good for the sake of good and not for any potential benefits, we start to become good people in our core, at heart.  When we start to be good, then we start to do things for motives that are much more pure, and we start to strengthen and reinforce the good that is in us.

A good person doesn't need to have ulterior motives for doing things--that person knows that when we do good, we greatly improve the quality of our own lives.  When we're good to other people, we strengthen the world and we strengthen ourselves, and we give the others a bit more faith in the goodness of life and humanity.  Goodness helps to destroy cynicism, and it helps others to see the world more brightly.  Being good helps us to avoid many kinds of stress, the kind that comes from fearing being caught doing something we shouldn't do or saying something we shouldn't say.

I want to be good, and I want to do good.  It isn't always easy, though, for there are almost always conflicting motives in the way of doing good.  Yes, I can help this person, but there's a cost of time.  Yes, I can do that good thing, but it will cost money.  That's definitely a good thing to do, but it's risky--I'll risk failure and I'll risk being criticized.  And saving time and money, of course, are two of out stronger desires as people, as is the avoidance of failure and criticism.  But the stakes are very high--do I want to look back five years from now and think of all the good I didn't do because of my fear, or all the good I did do in spite of my fear?  To me, the answer to that question is very obvious, and it's within my power--with every decision that I make--to answer it with the knowledge that I did, indeed, do every good I could.

Goodness consists not in the outward things we do, but in
the inward thing we are.  To be good is the great thing.

Edwin H. Chapin

02 November 2016


Many people feel that once they get a certain job, that's it--there's nothing more to learn that can't be learned while they're working.  They might have taken two or four years of college courses to earn a certain degree, but now that they're earning a paycheck, the days of spending time studying the field are long gone.  "If I don't learn it at work," they seem to think, "then I don't need to know it."

And perhaps they're right.  It's possible that there are many things about their careers that they don't necessarily need to know.  But why is it that we so often choose not to learn more about the very work that we're getting paid for, while we were so willing to study as much as was asked for us while we were hoping and praying to find work in the first place?

The truth is that most people don't push themselves very hard even when they're taking the courses necessary to get the jobs they want.  Most people are satisfied with meeting the minimum requirements in order to get by, get their diploma or certificate, and move on with their lives.  This is one of the reasons for which it's often so difficult to find well qualified people to promote into important leadership roles:  very few people have distinguished themselves as leaders in their fields, preferring instead simply to get along with doing what's required of them, and little else.
There are a few very interesting truths, though, about striving to be more than just competent in our work.  First of all, it seems that the more we learn about our work, the easier and the more interesting it becomes to us.  Tasks that used to be tedious now make sense, and we see how they're related to other elements of our jobs.  Plus, they're easier to take care of now, so they don't bother us nearly as much when we need to do them.  When we know more about our work and its ramifications, we can see the connections between what we do and the effects that those things have on other people.

Secondly, as we become more competent, we accomplish more and we're able to branch out and include other things in our work.  As a teacher, for example, I find that the more I know about the topic I'm teaching, the more I'm able to pull in material from other realms.  As I become more competent at teaching Speech classes, I find it easier to relate material from other fields, such as Biology or History, to the material that we're studying in Speech.  I no longer have to stick to the base material, for I'm able to bring more to my students.

Thirdly, when we take the time to learn more about what we're doing, we're putting ourselves in the position of being more qualified than others when it comes time for promotions or advancement.  Very often, pay raises are based on job performance, and it's almost impossible to raise our knowledge level about our work without also raising the level of our performance.

Of course, there are some jobs that may not require competence above certain levels.  When I worked at the front desk of two hotels, my job was clearly defined and I didn't need to know much more than what I did.  However, there were other areas of the hotel that ran independently of the front desk, and I always had opportunities to learn about those.  Also, there were always new things to learn about the area surrounding the hotel, so if someone were looking for things to do or places to visit, there was always more to learn, and I could be much more helpful to the guests when I took the time to learn about the area.

Our culture doesn't seem to value competence as much as it used to.  Now we seem to want to do and get everything as quickly as possible, which often leads to mediocre work and products.  It seems to be the exception to find people at stores and businesses who are actually able to help us thoroughly with whatever problems we may have.  We accept poor service and poor workmanship as if we deserve it--and when we decide to make a stand about something, it usually has to do with price or rudeness, but not about competence.

Nowhere have I seen this as strongly as I have in our schools.  There are many, many wonderful teachers out there, but there are also a lot of people who are not at all competent in their jobs, yet they keep getting rehired and even rewarded for making it through a certain number of years, whether or not they've made any effort at all to address their own lack of competence.  I've known quite a few teachers who do little teaching at all--they simply hand out packets to their students and have them work on their own while the teacher works at his or her desk, often searching the Internet for this or that, but certainly not engaged actively with the students.

Competence is a choice, purely and simply.  And it's a choice made over and over again--the choice to read another book this week about my career field, to register for a course related to my work, to spend some extra time researching a topic that will help me to be better at what I do.  And it's a choice that may not show immediate dividends--it may take years to see the results of my efforts to be really good at what I do.  Even after more than twenty years of teaching, I took two courses this past year and went to several seminars of three days each over the summer, simply because I need to add to my knowledge, even after all this time.  I simply want to be good at what I do because I know that the people I work for--in my case, high school students--will be the ones who benefit from my abilities.  And they deserve me to be the best I can be at what I do.  I'll never be the best teacher ever, of course, but I can certainly try to be better this year than I was last year.

I am, as I've said, merely competent. But in an age
of incompetence, that makes me extraordinary.

Billy Joel