Some weeks ago I was asked to give the keynote address at the annual convention of a statewide organization. The subject seemed a bit vague, something about life, or maybe leadership, the man said. About how long? “Oh, as long as you want, we have all morning.” You know as well as I do that getting something good out of this was going to be difficult, but it was an exceptional honor and so I agreed.
I decided to resurrect some old notes used in leadership classes years ago, and that were based on a fascinating lecture I had attended by one of the Drs. Menninger some forty years ago. The subject was developing the habits of emotional maturity as keys to enjoying the fullness of life. I worked up a draft, had it approved by my editor in chief (wife), reworked it a couple of times, and felt comfortable with it.
Yesterday was the day. The presider, hurried by many last minute details, collared me to ask what it was I was going to do again - an invocation or benediction or whatever they call it? Not a good sign. How would I like to be introduced? Did I have anything written down? I gave him a one paragraph intro. “I don’t like to read things out loud,” he said, “I’ll just wing it.” Another dark omen.
So there I was staring out at four hundred disinterested faces who had no idea who I was, or why I was asked to speak, or even if a speech was on the agenda. I’ve been a teacher, preacher and public speaker for most of my adult life, but I confess that my usual savoir faire was hiding somewhere. I plodded on, got politely warm applause, and made my escape. Another humbling, not humiliating, but humbling experience. For what it’s worth, here is a short version of what I had to say.
Before you start looking for the exit, I promise, no altar call or anything like it. What I do want you to consider is the fullness of life that we are all called to enjoy, that some of us run away from, that some of us find, and that most of us struggle with, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. In other words, you’re no good to others if you are not good to yourself, and you’re not good to yourself if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you and in you to take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Entering into the fullness of life requires the cultivation of the ability to honestly deal with reality without getting bent all out of shape about it. Too many of us live in half worlds of self deception, pretending that the world is something other than what it really is. Too many of us live fearful lives, constantly afraid of what other people think about us or do to us. A full life requires us to be honest about who we are and where we are, and not waste emotional energy worrying about what others think because others are too busy thinking about themselves to give us much notice anyway.
Honesty about reality, about who we really are, and what the world really is, requires the ability to deal with change easily, to be adaptable to changing conditions and issues. Nothing in life has ever stood still, but change seemed to come at a more leisurely pace not too many years ago. My dad was able to build an entire career on the engineering education he received in college in the late 1930s. You know that your technical knowledge is obsolete almost before you leave the classroom. The same is true for almost everything else in life. The pace of change is close to the speed of light. You must be flexible, adaptable and willing at all times to learn new things. What gives stability to and makes sense out of all this change is to be firmly grounded in honestly knowing yourself and the core values that guide your life decisions.
Let’s face it, you’ve got responsibilities to your self, your family, your employer, your community and to the particular clients you encounter each day. It’s one hell of a balancing act, and it requires flexibility. A person with a rigid, black and white personality who can only see right or wrong, good or bad, does not possess the tools needed to handle it. That rigid black and white way of thinking and acting may look strong, but it’s brittle and is easily broken. One must develop the discipline of flexibility, and it is a discipline.
The key to developing that discipline is learning how to be free from symptoms of unwarranted apprehension or anxiety. My boss once reminded his audience that no amount of worrying could add a single hour to your span of life or change the color of your hair. He warned that we spend too much time worrying about things we can’t do anything about or that never happened. We fail to spend enough time delighting in the good things of life that surround us on every side. That’s not to say that we don’t have things to worry about or be anxious about, we do. Each day brings it’s own, so deal with them as they come, and don’t invent more than there are.
Avoiding unnecessary worry is not the same thing as being unprepared. You plan and train all the time for unlikely events that may seldom or never happen. Sitting around chewing nails worrying about an earthquake won’t gain anything. Planning and training for it will, and it will also take away the need to worry about it. The same is true for everything else in life. Good planning and training disarms the bogeyman of anxious worry.
The antidote is the habit of generosity. There are many ways to be generous. Some of us are able to give away substantial amounts of money. Some of us are able to give away even greater amounts of love and care for our fellow human beings. Some of us are able to give away our time and talents to help where help is needed. It’s that same attitude of generosity that you must take into the outside world beyond the world of work. It is not easy to be generous in a hostile environment, and right now you live and work in a hostile political environment in which it is popular for you to be demeaned by public leaders. I can’t think of a more important role for you than to demonstrate the virtue of generosity in the community and to the community by doing for the neediest in our neighborhoods what you do for your own. It’s not a new idea. I know a fellow by the name of Paul who, quite a few years ago, wrote words of similar advice:
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I think Paul may have gone a little overboard using language like enemies and burning coals, but then he was never known for his diplomatic skills.
The fact is that we have to interact and get along with all kinds of people that we don’t agree with, don’t like and don’t always trust. Setting up all kinds of blustery defenses against them only leads backward to anxious fear, worry about scarcity, and rigidity in beliefs.
Going forward into the fullness of life requires the courage to find ways to relate to those people in mutually acceptable ways. That does not mean finding common ground, although we never want to rule that out. Too often the idea of common ground, finding few the things we can agree on, creates a very small playing field surrounded by the weapons we are unwilling to surrender. It doesn’t leave much to work with.
Finding ways to relate to others in mutually acceptable ways is different. It means learning to respect one another in the midst of differences. Often that means having the courage and patience to listen to the other’s story. What is it that defines their life, their beliefs and their attitudes. Knowing the other’s story opens the door to the possibility of mutually acceptable relationships without manufacturing some phony area of pretend agreement. The courage and patience to listen to one another’s stories is also a critical tool for improving marriages, surviving teenage children, and getting through a day at work with the person you least want to work with.
It’s all about living into the fullness of life in the midst of the changes and chances that life brings. Why would anyone want less than that? Why would anyone want to live with the symptoms of unwarranted anxiety when there is so much fullness of life to enjoy? Why would anyone want to live with unproductive, toxic anger generated by fear and anxiety when the fullness of life is available? LIfe is an adventure. It deserves to be lived to the fullest in childlike excitement and curiosity about what lies ahead.