Yeah, I know. It’s what I tell myself all of the time, echoing the I Ching and assorted other wise guys and smarty-pants, ancient and new: The goal is getting to clarity.
The problem with that one, of course, is that I’m such a little thing and the Universe is really, REALLY huge.
What are the odds that I’m ever really going to be able to know enough to make sense out of it all?
How likely is it that I’ll be the know-it-all who can suss out the Whopper Mystery and the All of Everything – even with the help of all these electronic devices and beaucoup-pile of databases and stacks of books and that?
IT’S A DILEMMA, ALL RIGHT.
As far as I can tell there are just two basic stances you can take when you start dancing your Tao Dance. There are ongoing, long-standing arguments for either one.
Everybody and everything is against you and they’re all out to get you.
The world all around you is conspiring to do you good.
The first stance is so old it has an established name. It’s called “paranoia.”
Google will tell you that “paranoia” is a noun that means, “a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organized system.”
The entry warns that this “may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.”
The second one has a made-up name that’s slowly making its way into dictionaries and such: “pronoia.”
Wikipedia credits a psychologist, Dr. Fred H. Goldner of Queens College in New York City, as the probable official coiner of the name. The good doctor wrote an article in 1982 that was published in the academic journal Social Problems.
That article, titled “Pronoia,” detailed a phenomenon that is the positive mirror-image of the more established social delusion we call paranoia.
Goldner said that there are those among us who take the social complexity and ambiguity we encounter in the modern world and rearrange the events and circumstances that we all encounter in our lives into a story of support, connection, and well-wishing.
They carry this story with them and the actions that arise out of it are very different than the ones engendered by the paranoia paradigm.
The ideas in Goldner’s article resonated (and continues to resonate) with a lot of people.
Just six years later, in 1988, author Paulo Coelho came out with a novel, THE ALCHEMIST. In it the protagonist, a young Andalusian shepherd boy, dreams about traveling in search of an extravagant worldly treasure that will fulfill his every wish.
From his home in Spain, Santiago journeys to the markets of Tangier and across the Egyptian desert and has a bunch of adventures before encountering an old, wise man called “the Alchemist.”
The wise old magic guy encourages the boy on his quest telling the boy, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
And so Santiago goes on.
Thirty years later, the book is still going strong.
This YouTube video, “Paulo Coelho on Luck, Coincidence and Faith” was published in 2008 by HarperOne (an imprint of HarperCollins) to celebrate the book as a “modern classic.”
At the time, 22 million copies of the book – two million of which were in English — had been sold worldwide.
Nine years later, in 2017, Jubilee published the next YouTube video entitled, “How the Universe Is On Your Side” as part of their Patreon campaign called Dear Humanity.
The idea continues to gain ground, it seems.
MY OWN THINKING
All of this stuff got me thinking about how each of these two seemingly opposing and (equally delusional) systems of thought-constructs might affect the way you walk through the world.
Which point of view colors your days with rainbows and fills it with bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers?
Which one peoples your world with smiles and laughter and kindness all around?
Which filter would be likely to lead you to view the world with brighter eyes and more joy?
We humans are lucky. We get to choose the glasses we want to wear. It is, more than anything else, our birthright – just because we’re human.
In my perambulations through the multi-versal Internet, I ran across yet another YouTube video, just published in 2018 by EntertainHumorousVlooper. It’s called, “When You Want Something All the Universe Conspires in Helping You Achieve It.”
So that’s why I came up with this thing:
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an increasing tendency towards radical trust in the Universe. [It’s a cool thing to feel that there’s a conspiracy afoot to enhance your well-being. Hawaiians say, “Akua take care.”]
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an understanding that the world is a communion of subjects and not a collection of objects. [Everyone and everything in the world has a story. You can connect to the story if you lead with curiosity rather than judgment.]
It has occurred to me (many times) that everybody walks through worlds made of stories. The stories are, after all, how we make sense of ourselves.
Our own stories – our struggles, our mistakes, the choices we make and the results of those choices, the lessons we’ve learned and the ones we keep ignoring – are windows through which we display who and what we are. Each of us has a unique, custom-made story that we rework every day.
And since there are only so many ways any human can move through the world, each of us is very likely to find similarities and insights in every other person’s story. These findings can often be applied to our own selves.
Probably that’s why we like looking through other people’s windows. Probably that’s why other people’s stories fascinate us.
Some smarty-pants scientists who research such things tell us that our brains fire up more strongly as we listen to a story rather than to a list of factoids and dry-as-dust measures and measurements.
Our minds go sailing off into other worlds on the wings of a story well-told. The best storytellers transport us.
We actually can “see” where they have been and their words take us along with them on their journey-memories. Our brains rev up and go into overtime. We remember stories.
That’s a heck of a lot different than the sleepy-time induced by power-point presentations and soporific lectures that pile a lot of facts on our heads and bury us in a confusing avalanche of teeny-tiny details that don’t actually help us put together any kind of coherent picture.
Crabb believes that it is the connection that forms between people that is important in the act of storytelling and story-listening.
He says, “I think some people think it’s all about talking about you, you, you. But what it really is is reaching out into the void and connecting with people and letting them know they are not alone.”
The Moth, an acclaimed nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, has been flying high for more than 20 years now. It’s the brainchild of writer George Dawes Green.
Here’s a YouTube video, “The Courage to Create,” that was published by Cole Hahn US in 2016. It features Green talking about the transformation that happens onstage when storytellers tell a tale and their audiences connect with it.
The Moth attracts all kinds of storytellers – bad and good boys and girls, and the famous, the infamous and the anonymous. And, many times, the magic happens – over and over again.
HOW THE MOTH WAS BORN AND GREW
George Dawes Green loved the storytelling sessions at his friend Wanda’s home on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia where he grew up. The moths that gathered around the porch lightbulb and the magic of friends gathered together, drinking bourbon and “talking story” were a part of the parcel.
After he became a published author and was living in New York, Green began missing the story sessions on Wanda’s porch. He wanted to recreate the experience, where ordinary people could deliver well-crafted, well-told personal stories, for his friends.
Green started hosting gatherings of storytellers in his New York loft, and the magic he remembered kept happening.
By 1997, Green’s idea had grown into a nonprofit organization named after the moths he remembered. Twenty years later The Moth had presented over 20,000 stories, told live and without notes to standing-room-only crowds worldwide.
Thousands of people have participated in Moth storytelling workshops, performance opportunities, and StorySlam competitions.
There’s a Moth Podcast that’s downloaded more than 44 million times a year as well as a Peabody-award winning radio show, The Moth Radio Hour, which airs on 450-plus public radio stations around the globe.
There’s even a Moth Corporate Program that provides industry-specific storytelling solutions.
And then there are the books. In 2013, The Moth published its first story collection. The list kept growing.
The latest of them, THE MOTH PRESENTS ALL THESE WONDERS: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, is one compiled by Catherine Burns, The Moth’s long-time artistic director.
It is amazing.
This YouTube Video, “THE MOTH: The Best Storytellers In The World,” was published in 2013 by THNKR.
It showcases a behind-the-scenes look at the astonishing effort and enthusiasm that goes into getting the storytellers ready for performing in one of the most prestigious live shows in the line-up that the group produces and it touches on what the participating storytellers get out of doing it.
It is a revelation that there are all of these people who have the guts to volunteer and come forward to tell their own story in front of a large crowd of strangers.
What’s so mindboggling, however, is that all of the other people who attend the events have made the effort and taken the time to come and listen to strangers, regardless of the topic.
As one commentator pointed out, “In a world of negativity, this…allows people to escape from the concept that everything must be internalized and that we are alone.”
I agree that “it may very well be one of the biggest acts of love this world has to offer.”
Here’s a poem:
CHICKEN SKIN KINE
In the streetlight halo at the corner,
Cocky young ones gather
To whisper warnings to each other
In spooky-story guise.
Don’t stop for that white-clad woman
Hitching a ride in the dark night.
Turn to challenge her strange silence,
Find her changed…or just not there.
Don’t carry pork over certain mountains.
There are spirits lurking in the passes there.
The pork will draw them to you and they’ll surround you.
Give them what you carry; maybe they’ll release you.
Another road, a moonless, starless night.
Quiet paws padding, the snick of sharp claws pacing behind you.
Don’t turn your head; there’s nothing there.
Show no fear; you might make it to the light.
Honor now the ancient kapu laid upon this place.
Those there are who pass in proud procession,
Ghostly torches lighting their endless path through time.
Hide. If they see you, they may take you with them.
The darkness presses inward, heavier with each new warning.
Tendrils of gossamer terror quietly spin out, a web
That catches at the day-bright glow of innocence and joy
And leaches into the wanderer’s golden longing for home.
Bold laughter chokes
In throats turned tight with dread
Of the easy road home,
Shrouded now by the magical night.
by Netta Kanoho
Header photo credit: “Sunrise, sunrise” by Chris Chabot via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
Thanks for your visit. I’d appreciate it if you would drop a note or comment below and tell me your thoughts.
Probably every wanna-be Creative has been told (at some point or other) that in order to reach their full potential as a writer, visual artist, musician, performer or whatever, it is imperative to “find your own voice.”
Now, in the Age of Social Media and Self-Branding — when the “Creative Mindset” is supposed to be The Way to $ucce$$ and Happiness — we are told that we must go looking for our individual, unique voices. Our success depends on it.
I confess, I almost lost it when a pragmatic, more literal-minded friend snarked, “I KNOW where my voice is. It’s right here in my mouth!” Gales of laughter came bubbling up.
Explaining this “voice” thing gets confusing because even people who are engaged in developing themselves in a craft or an art or some other skill that doesn’t use words and doesn’t engage the mouth’s ability to make sounds can get all tangled up in trying to figure out how to find their own “voice.”
Now that the business world has turned on to getting creative, it seems that everyone wrestles with the idea of developing a voice.
There are Titans out there – the guys who built empires using their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses by surrounding themselves with people who have other, complementary strengths. Lots of people admire them and want to be them.
There are Mega-Stars and Rainmakers and Heroes and Idols and Headliners and Leaders and Big Cheeses and High Muckamucks and Household Names and Treasures and Wonders and Leading Lights and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.
Every one of them will probably tell you that they reached the stratosphere of massive accomplishments because they were successful in finding their own unique “voice.”
WHAT IS YOUR VOICE?
This concept of the elusive “voice” all wanna-be Successes are supposed to be nurturing is the crux of a story I encountered in a blog published by a flamenco dance teacher, Rina Orellana.
She relates how students come to her asking, “How do I find my voice? How do I allow myself to become the dancer I want to be?”
When dancers ask her this, she says, to her it’s an indication that the dancer is “not quite comfortable in their skin. They’re thinking too much and not feeling or allowing themselves to be in the movement.”
Her advice to these students is particularly insightful, I think.
Orellana tells them that they “need to allow themselves to be the bad-asses that they are” and she reminds them to “look at themselves in the mirror not to correct any physical part of the dance but to CONNECT with themselves as the person dancing.”
She assures them that looking at themselves in the mirror with acceptance will ultimately lead to their being confident in their movement and in their skin.
Being comfortable in your own skin is how you tell when you are speaking with your own voice.
Your “voice” is how you’re recognized by others. It’s the “tone” and the themes of your body of work (whatever it is).
Every time you do anything that other people notice, whether you’re an artist, a businessperson, an intellectual, a scientist or a geek, you are also putting your values and the unique perspectives and skills you bring to your work on display.
What is on display is the meaning and the mana that you have developed so far in your life. Your work shows how you are standing in the world.
Like every other human thing, your “voice” changes as you grow and evolve. It develops nuances and layers. It deepens. It may develop greater clarity or get muddied up by life-induced confusions.
As an accomplished dancer and teacher, Ornella says, she cannot help passing along her own ways of moving and styling as well as the basic theories and techniques surrounding the craft.
However, in the middle of all that, her aim as a teacher is to encourage each individual dancer to find and focus on the movements that feel “right” for the dancer and to explore the rhythms that resonate.
Kevin Fitz-Gerald, a professor at the USC Thornton School of Music, in this YouTube Video “ARTS: Finding Your Voice,” which was published by the school in 2007, agrees with Ornella. The video was produced by artistshousemusic.org.
As Fitz-Gerald points out in the video, the things that his students point to as things they don’t like about themselves are very often what sets them apart and makes them unique individuals. It is those things that can help them move beyond being “average” or “mediocre” and generic.
Both of these teachers advise their students to discover and develop their own natural strengths and make allowances for their inherent weaknesses and limitations by working on improving their techniques and by choosing a framework within which they can reach for their best work.
Both of them say that you will only be able to discover and use your own voice to present a message that is unique to you when you are able to explore and accept the whole package that is you.
VOICE, AUDIENCE AND YOU
All performers (and businesspeople are performers too) need an audience. It’s part of the dynamic of this self-expression jones Creatives have. They trip out on the reactions they can engender in their audiences.
Every Creative understands that their audience will have an effect on how the artist does what he or she does. Often the audience will determine whether the artist can continue to do it.
As a performer you want your audience to actually see who you are. You want them to pay attention to what you have to say. The audience doesn’t have to like what you say. They don’t even have to like you.
Getting these others to pay attention to what you need to say can be the most important, life-affirming thing a human can do.
As a young girl who was a victim of sexual abuse by a trusted adult, acclaimed poet Maya Angelou had to choose between going silent and remaining trapped in an untenable situation or finding and using her own voice to get the help she needed to escape and to transcend this soul-shattering thing.
The girl chose to speak, and she kept on speaking and affirming life throughout her long and productive time on this earth.
In this YouTube Video, “Finding My Voice,” published in 2010 by visionaryproject, she tells how she brings herself out of her inherent tendency to go silent and closing herself down by deliberately making herself speak and speak and speak.
As Angelou points out in the video, mutism and freezing when overwhelmed by the circumstances in your life can be a very dangerous thing. It can become too comfortable.
You become invisible.
Angelou was acclaimed as a poet, story-teller, and writer. At one point she became an actress, playwright, producer, and director. She was renowned as an educator and as a civil rights activist.
Angelou died in 2014, at the age of 86. Throughout her long life, she was not invisible.
THE SHAPE OF THE SELF YOU SHOW
Your audience – anybody who’s watching what you do – will respond to the You that you present to them in your performance. They can only know what you choose to show.
Maybe you’ve decided to spend your time imitating what those who have become the icons and the “best-of-class” in your field do. Maybe, you think, if you do what they did, then you will glow with their kind of shine.
There’s only one problem with doing this: The You that you are showing to your audience will never be more than just a copy of somebody else.
For example, there are excellent Elvis imitators out there. They serve a useful function: They help keep the legend of that good ole boy alive. But, really…off the top of your head, can you actually recall the names of these performers?
The same is also true in any other field of human endeavor. Imitation is its own reward. Maybe you win a lot. Mostly not.
I suppose, “finding your voice” is all about choosing the You that you want the World to know. And, probably, you do hope that the You that you choose to show will not be ignored, dismissed or mocked.
Let’s be frank here. You really do want at least some of the other people in this world to like that self you’re showing them because, basically, you do need to win enough support for what you are trying to do so you can keep on doing it.
Part of that is a matter of survival. You have to eat. You need a place to lay your head that’s more comfortable than a piece of cardboard under some highway underpass. You need to take care of the people you love too.
And you have to achieve all that among all these other people (seven billion and counting) who are wanting to do the same thing as well.
However, it seems to me that if you’re any kind of a Maker, what you really want out of all this dancing around is to get to a place where you will have the freedom to get on with doing what you like to do best.
HOW DO YOU GET ON THE BUS?
The biggest problem with all this head-scratching and mooning around trying to hear your own voice is, as jazz great Miles Davis once pointed out, often a matter of spending enough time just doing what you want to do. Miles said, “Sometimes you have to play for a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
For one thing, there are a lot of different “selves” inside every one of us.
All the wise guys and smarty-pants agree. All of us humans are pretty much assemblages, made up of the bits and pieces we’ve picked up over time from the other people around us as we continue to wander through the world.
These assorted bits get glued onto the basic package. Sometimes all those life-bits turn us into lumpy messes.
To find the self that best encourages other people to respond positively to your spending your days in ways that resonate with that self you actually started out being can be a bitch of a project.
Every hour of every day and night you’re dealing with the pressures and demands of all of your dailynesses. Work, and the needs of your family, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, and your stuff eat up your time.
Trying to deal with satisfying other people’s priorities, goals and expectations and maintain the life you’ve become accustomed to is often simply overwhelming.
Now, on top of that, we’re supposed to dig out our true selves and find our own voice as well? Ri-i-i-ght….
Todd Henry is the founder of Accidental Creative, a company that works with people and companies all over the world to foster creativity, productivity, leadership and passion for work.
Besides explaining why finding your voice is important if you are looking for the meaning and mana in your ordinary life and in your work, Henry puts forward questions to ask and ways to find your own answers to them.
Here’s a list that he put together:
What angers you? What triggers an urge in you to rectify a great wrong?
What makes you cry?
What have you mastered? What do you do well?
What gives you hope? What do you look forward to?
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
If you had all the time and money in the world, what would you do?
What would blow your mind?
What platform do you own?
What change would you like to see in the world?
If you had one day left, how would you spend it?
YET ANOTHER 30-DAY CHALLENGE SERIES
It occurred to me that Henry’s question list would make good 30-day challenge material. Here’s the how-to:
Grab an ordinary small-kid kind of composition notebook and a pen and label it “The Voice Project.” (No need to get fancy with this.)
Now, choose one of those Henry questions or make one up that’s your own, then make a commitment that for just ten minutes every day for the next 30 days, you will think on that one question and write down your answer to it in that notebook you’ve labeled. (If the time you take to answer the question stretches past the five minutes, that’s fine too.)
Do this notebook thing every day for 30 days. Be honest with yourself. Nobody else is going to see this thing. Just you.
If it starts to get boring, you might want to use colors and drawings and other stuff to illustrate the thing. Cut out magazine pictures and stick them in there. Write a poem. Whatever. Have fun with it, but answer the question.
By the end of that time, you’ll at least get some idea about the kinds of thoughts that arise when you ask yourself this one question.
After you finish the first 30-day challenge with the question of your choice, do it again for the next question, then the next, then the next.
Ten minutes a day for thirty days equals 300 minutes – a minimum of 5 hours total in a 720-hour time period.
It’s less than the time spent attending yet another workshop or working your way through one more online course.
It’s less time than the time spent participating in networking events listening to everybody else’s pitches and slinging some your own self.
In between the question-answering sessions, you might want to go back and read over and look at the stuff you’ve produced. You might ask yourself whether you really agree with all this blather and B.S. you’re shoveling.
That’s when you really start figuring out what you actually think about the thoughts you think. You find the shape of your own basic self – the one that just sits there waiting for you to notice.
It gets to be quite fascinating after a while.
I notice that the weirdest result of this little exercise is how just answering these questions and others like them affects you in your daily life.
You might start doing things that surprise you: accepting an invitation to a gathering that you might normally not consider, taking on some project or supporting a cause that resonates strongly with you, or trying something you never tried before just to see whether you might like it.
These things may have some pretty amazing results. It can be a very good thing.
Here’s a poem:
THAT IS THE SAD
Melancholy sits, a knot at the small of my back,
My companion as I walk through sunshine and through rain,
As I do my days,
Charging at windmills,
Taking in the wonderments,
Drinking down the joyousness,
Choking on the tears.
Maybe I’m understanding now:
The sadness is only the residue
Left behind as a flood flows
Through my heart cave yet again,
Leaving behind a high-water mark.
You know, of course, that all that shiny stuff
Running through all of our heart-caves are
Tributaries that merge together into a great river
Running through this ancient universe,
Pumped out by the jostling masses of living creatures,
Flowing all together like the notes of one grand song.
The birds singing their morning hosannas as they greet the sun
Go on through their day with the sound of that
Mighty chorus sounding in their ears,
Content that they’ve established their place in the world.
I am thinking we humans are no less connected than they,
But ours is a darker richer song,
Its complexity woven into our days and nights like a subsonic rumble
As we delude ourselves into believing we are immune –
Apart somehow – from the music we are making,
That grandiloquence that touches the edges of our own universe and beyond.
We fool ourselves and think we can sidestep the consequences
Of our myriad tiny choices,
That we can stand apart and inviolate, away from the all of everything.
And so we stand uncertain, unsure that this how, this place is righteously ours…
Unlike the bold birds who understand otherwise.
That’s the deep sadness, I am thinking,
The “suffering” wise guys ponder – this forgetting that is uniquely human –
The disremembering that, one and all, we are
The favored children of this old universe…
Welcome, gifted and alive,
Swimming in the same golden stream.
That willful denial keeps us grabbing at the silly, glittering flotsam,
That awful lostness rasps and scrapes us raw,
Dogging our days and trotting us around all crazy.
It’s a very different take than the more usual “give until it hurts” that Mother Theresa espoused.
Mother Theresa’s thing seems to encourage a degree of selflessness that’s way over the top. Some folks take it to mean that you’re supposed to give and give and give until you’ve nothing left to give….and then you give some more.
With that one, I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to do when you’re totally depleted and unable any more to take care of your own self, your own dreams, and the responsibilities that are yours.
I’ve often wondered.
MINDFULNESS AND GIVING
Levinson’s take on the whole giving thing seems, instead, to encourage mindfulness, looking at whether the “help” you’re giving is actually a help to the other person and is not a detriment to yourself.
Is this help you are giving effective?
Are you empowering the other person?
Does the help you are giving encourage the recipient to continue walking their own road?
Does it help them to build themselves up so they can tackle their own problems?
Very often, you have to watch to make sure that the responses and moves you’re evoking from the other person as a result of the actions you’ve taken are heading in the direction that can allow them to make the best use of the energy (money, time, talent) that you’ve expended on their behalf.
So, what happens if it doesn’t? What if your gift keeps the other person from learning the lessons they need to learn? What if your gift actually diminishes them?
An everyday example of that is the effects of being raised by a so-called “helicopter parent.”
A well-meaning, overprotective parent who does your chores and your homework for you; tries to resolve your every social problem; is your personal rally squad who cheers you on for every little thing you might accomplish and attempts to completely eliminate any sort of contact you might have with frustration of any sort is NOT a help.
If every obstacle is eliminated for you, how are you going to learn how to do your own work-arounds and develop your own strengths to power on through the potholes and hurdles and to fix your own mistakes?
If your way of giving involves solving another person’s problems without giving them the chance to face their own challenges, the net result is that your gift can prevent them from developing their own abilities and making their own choices and decisions.
It sends the unfortunate message that you don’t think they can do it without your help. Is that a message you want to send?
AND WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Also, a major question you might want to ponder is this: When you are making this gift, are you using your available resources in a way that adds meaning and mana (inherent power) to your own life?
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written about the positive effect generosity can have on one’s sense of freedom and our own sense of self.
When we give, we continually test our limits, she says. “The practice of generosity is about creating space. We see our limits and we extend them continuously, which creates a deep expansiveness and spaciousness of mind.”
The late poet Maya Angelou once famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
What other meaning does the power of giving lend to your life? Is it worth the cost?
TWO ENDS OF A GIFTING TRANSACTION
It occurs to me that every gift has a giver and a receiver. The gift is a transfer of life-energy from one to another.
Gifting is always a transaction between the one who gives and the one who receives.
The thing is, human relationships are always complex. Questions to ask yourself before you offer to help someone with more than an easy-fix problem are these:
Does the person want your help?
Is the person ready to accept your help?
Do you have the skill, the time and the inclination to do what is really needed? Trying to help people when you don’t have the skills or the time or the commitment to a project is likely to do more harm than good.
Jumping into somebody else’s life and messing with their “stuff” does require a lot of heavy thinking beforehand. Be respectful. Be careful. That may be somebody’s heart you’re stepping on.
HOW ARE YOU HELPING?
Sometimes it’s just a matter of pitching in. Some project needs to be completed and you are willing and able to lend a hand.
The goal is clear, everybody agrees on the purpose and the method is fairly obvious. You go.
However, it does get more confusing and a lot more difficult when you’re trying to help others as they cope with circumstances that are catastrophic or perhaps the result of societal issues over which they have little control.
This YouTube video, “Help That Helps – Giving What Is Really Needed,” was published in 2016 by the Visalia Rescue Mission. It was put together by people who spend their days providing concrete help in many different ways for the homeless in their area.
The major take-away from this one is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the bigger, more problematic circumstances humans often face.
The book has a Christian bent. Its goal is to educate missionaries and ministries as well as other helpers who work in poverty- and disaster-stricken areas about how to effectively alleviate poverty for the long-term.
The authors advise that these helpers need to focus on the resources and abilities a community already has rather than focusing on what the community does not have.
The book is an interesting read for anyone who’d like to gain a better understanding of the different facets of helping those in need.
HOW TO TELL WHEN YOU’RE GIVING TOO MUCH
Professor Shawn Meghan Burn’s 2014 article in Psychology Today, “Twelve Signs That You are Giving Too Much,” gives a rundown of the signs that the help you are giving to someone may be dysfunctional and unhealthy.
He says the most successful and effective givers are those who rate high in concern for others and also in self-interest.
These givers contribute in ways that reinforce their social ties and they say yes to the things they for which they have the unique skills, resources or time to give.
They also limit what they do.
Failed givers, Grant says, tend to say “yes” to everything. Often they end up either overwhelmed, ineffectual, or resentful and put-upon.
LOOKING FOR THE SIGNS
Perhaps Levinson is right. Looking at the real effects of what you do to help other people can guide you in determining how much you give and how.
If what you are doing is truly a help, then it makes sense to keep on doing what you’re doing.
If it does not help (either because you’re making stupid or ineffective moves or because you’re dealing with blind people), then it’s probably a good idea to stop whatever you’re doing and reassess.
As one commentator pointed out, if you help the wrong person for the wrong reason or in an ineffectual way, you may miss opportunities to really help the right person who needs the kind of help you can gladly give.
GIVING IS A GOOD THING
We all agree that helping people is a good thing. We believe that it’s a way to ensure our own happiness.
Wise guys have told us that forever.
There’s a Chinese proverb that goes: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”
Saints, power dudes and other famous sorts all tout giving and serving others as the way to happiness.
Even scientific research provides compelling anecdotal evidence that giving is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness.
The guys in the lab coats have used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to map out how giving activates the pleasure centers in the brain, just like food and sex.
Humans are hard-wired to feel great about giving, it says here. We like doing it. Giving makes us happy.
For some people, giving is as natural as breathing. For others, not so much.
If you feel like you are starving to death and the world is set up to take everything you have away from you, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be moved to generosity very often.
Generosity is a learned response and you can learn it from the people around you.
That’s what research by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith suggests, anyway. He concluded that it is certainly possible to absorb lessons for or against generosity.
This 2015 YouTube video, “Joy” was a story presented by Ashok Ramasubramanian in Speakeasy DC’s monthly storytelling series. It was part of a show at Town Danceboutique, a bar in Washington, DC, on the theme, “The Charismatic Leader: Stories about those we follow for the right and wrong reason.”
The video gives an example of how someone can be influenced towards more generosity. It’s also an engaging story.
Smith is not completely convinced that the increased activity that happens in the brain when we are being generous is actually responsible for increasing our happiness.
Maybe all that cogitating is triggered by questions like, “Should I?”, “Can I?”, “Is this worth it?”
He’s one of the guys who suggest that, maybe, because generous people tend to view the world as safe, secure and abundant, it could just be that they are happy because they have a generally sunny outlook. Whatever.
It’s a funny thing, though. Even seeing other people’s generosity tends to be uplifting and induces a bit of teary-eyed smiling. This sweet video, “The Most Generous Boy in the World,” published by filmmaker Meir Kay in 2017, is a smile-maker that way.
Another science of generosity finding backed by a lot of anecdotes and stories is that the more adversity someone has experienced, the more compassion he or she often feels. This compassion is likely to increase the tendency to be generous.
One of my favorite YouTube videos is this 2013 short film made by TrueMoveH, “Inspiring Power of Giving and the Power of Veggie Soup” that was published by Get Your Health Up in 2013. (Got your Kleenex handy?)
Here’s a poem:
An everyday wonder are the friends of your heart,
They see you and they let you know you are there with them.
They cherish you for who you are
And they honor what you are making of your own true self.
Their love’s embrace is soft,
But the love is solid and deep.
Like a gentle bay, they invite you to come and play
On warm, golden sands shaded by tall trees
With leaves that rustle in the softest breezes,
And swim in calm waters ringed by strong reefs.
You can build sand castles there.
You can float in the water cradled between sand and sun,
A peaceful bit of flotsam among the ripples.
Like the moana beyond the reef,
The deep, rolling waves of their love
Carry you on your way beyond the horizons
To new worlds that you can only imagine
As you dream on the beach while you watch the sun set.
When medical students are learning a new procedure, the first thing they do is watch someone who knows how to do it carry out the procedure. This gives them a general idea of how the thing is done.
The student will then practice the new procedure until he or she can carry it out. Doing it helps the student understand the various elements and techniques involved that aren’t apparent from just watching someone else do the procedure.
After that, the student is encouraged to teach this procedure to someone else. This helps the student see whether he or she has enough knowledge of the procedure to show someone else how it is done as well as explain, in a simple, understandable way, why the procedure is useful.
As Albert Einstein famously pointed out, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
I found it interesting that these same principles are also used by tradespeople, craftsmen, artists, performers and cooks to pass along their specialized knowledge as well.
TEACHING HELPS YOU TEST YOUR OWN KNOWLEDGE
Markman points out that in order to teach somebody else you do need to form a complete and organized, easily-understood explanation of what you’re trying to teach.
It’s like writing down a recipe for making muffins. Stirring the liquid ingredients into a mound of dry ingredients works a heck of a lot better than vice-versa. It’s a good and helpful thing to mention that to someone making muffins for the first time.
If your attempted explanations confuse your student, it’s probable that you need to work on filling in the gaps in your own knowledge.
Perhaps the student doesn’t understand the words you are using. Do you? Are there other more common words or alternative ways of explaining that you can use instead?
Perhaps the student needs more information than you are giving them. Take it back down to a more basic level. Find out what the student knows and does not know and start from there.
Maybe the way you’ve organized and presented the information confuses the student. How can you make the steps easier to follow? Are some of the important steps in a procedure missing in your attempted explanation? Are they in the right order?
In 2009, Columbia University professor Simon Sinek was interviewed by Erik Michielsen, founder of Capture Your Flag, a virtual mentoring platform. The following YouTube Video, “How Teaching Others Build Your Knowledge” is a snippet published around that time.
In it, Sinek says, “Teaching forces you…to break down your knowledge into components that give you a deeper understanding of your own knowledge.”
JUST PLANNING TO TEACH SOMEBODY ELSE HELPS YOU LEARN BETTER
Interestingly, researchers have found that students who thought they were going to be tutoring or teaching others worked harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately, and apply it more effectively.
The guys in the lab coats dubbed this “the protégé effect.” If we are going to teach somebody else, then we know we need to pay attention to the most important, relevant points and organize them in our minds so that we can present them in a coherent, understandable way.
This way of “relational learning” happened even if, ultimately, the students were not actually required to teach someone else.
This YouTube video, “Why Teaching Others Is the Best Way to Learn” published in 2013 by Art of Smart TV features resident nerd Rowan Kunz explaining the value of teaching others in order to get feedback about your own level of knowledge.
Art of Smart describes itself as a “movement that is changing the world through a new kind of holistic tutoring and mentoring for young people.”
An important point Kunz makes is the one about repetition. Every time you go back over the material you are teaching someone else, trying to help the other person make sense of it, the knowledge gets embedded more clearly and more deeply into your own mind.
It all helps your brain build neurotransmitter pathways that help you access the information in your head. Cool stuff! Perhaps, by teaching (or planning to teach someone else) you’ll find other ways to widen and deepen the knowledge you hold.
ANOTHER TAKE ON TEACHING
There are more than one way to teach. Some of them don’t use words.
The following YouTube video published by Fred Then in 2014, “Learning By Doing and Not Teaching” dramatizes one little Thai girl’s lessons from her mother, a vendor selling fresh fruits from a trolley at a market in Petchburi province.
The girl, Achara Poonsawat (also known as “Nin”), won a scholarship from the Sarnrak Project that allowed her to complete a Bachelor’s Degree program and become an elementary school teacher.
Nin’s mother’s methods of teaching were not academic since she was herself unschooled. However, they were based on real-life fact-finding. Nin’s mother encouraged the girl to observe what others did, analyze why their methods worked and try the methods for herself.
Sarnrak Konkeng Huajai Krang (Good Kids, Good Hearts) is an initiative operated since 2000 by AIS, the largest mobile phone operator in Thailand. The children targeted by the initiative are “underprivileged children who demonstrate love and close tie to their families.”
While the scholarship recipients go to school, their families receive financial aid from Sarnrak as well since that allows the youngsters to attend school without worrying about having to help support their family.
Here’s a poem….
PAPA AND HIS NET
Papa sits on the gray-green sand.
His skin is leathered by the sun.
Jewel drops of water sparkle in the darkness of his hair.
White salt traces down his arms, his back, his chest.
His rough, brown hands weave the shuttle delicately.
Like a bird, it flies intricate patterns over and through,
As the net grows whole.
Papa talks about the fish the net and he have captured.
It is a strong net, his best net.
Not even a big uhu could escape it.
Manini and weke they have caught by the score.
He snagged it on some rocks and it was wounded,
Torn upon the cruel, black pōhaku.
He mourns the jagged tears as his hands deftly flutter,
As the net grows whole.
Papa argues with a friend, things fishermen argue.
He swaps lies about the ones he and his net “almost,
And he brags about the ones that didn’t get away.
His eyes twinkle when he shows his teeth in laughter.
They shine in amusement at the whoppers and the toppers
And the ones that flop,
And his hands – his rough, brown hands – keep on flying,
In a world of seven billion-plus souls, one of our deepest human needs often goes unfulfilled – the need to be heard. That may be one reason why the Spoken Word movement, once a subculture on the fringes of the mainstream, is gaining widespread acceptance around the world.
THE RISE OF SPOKEN WORD
“Spoken word poetry” was born in Chicago in 1984, when a construction worker, Marc Smith, started reading poetry at a popular club and encouraged others to join him in sharing their work. Smith was looking to “democratize” poetry and “bring it to the masses.”
He was following an old road with an ancient lineage that meanders through the underground and fringes of Society among the dispossessed and disenfranchised and the ones who choose to stand different.
The trailhead for this road began before there was writing and paper. The college theses expounding about the “long-held traditions” of the ancient art of wordsmithing (and all the other hoo-hah that made playing with words seem like it is a probable cause for dyspepsia) were not even a glimmer on any horizon.
Smith was going back to that most ancient of traditions, Word-of-Mouth — just like the tribal storytellers and assorted con artists and bull-shitters sitting around campfires and hearth-fires of the world from ancient times, weaving a yarn for their friends and companions. And he was inviting everybody else to join him.
Smith remembered: Poetry was, first and foremost, an oral art. It was an art with a performer and an audience. The people around him liked that reminder.
Two years after he first got up to tell his poems out loud, Smith approached the owner of a jazz club. Those readings happened every week and evolved into a competition.
The format gained popularity, but it was the Internet that blew it up big. A lot of people liked being reminded that poetry is an oral art.
Poetry was originally produced by a human voice, propelled out of a human body with the breath. It was one person talking to a bunch of other people.
Audiences liked the presentations by the most avid performers that showed that poetry, at its most effective, contains the rhythm and movements of a human heart.
They liked that the beginning and end of a poetic line is often a unit of phrasing and sense-making that is based on the human breath. You need to breathe when you’re speaking your poem. It is your breath and your voice that animates it.
PAGE POETRY VS STAGE POETRY
Poetry Its-Own-Self has always been a means of often-powerful self-expression. It grew out of song and prayer and storytelling traditions that continue to this day. It has been with us forever and because of that it can be difficult to pin down and define.
One cute breakdown, “What Is Poetry? #Poetry Defined” was published in 2015 by Advocate of Wordz. Here’s the YouTube video:
In my own experience, poetry has been a life-saver. It continues to be a way for me to find my own clarity in the confusion of everyday life. Rearranging words on a page helps me to rearrange the thoughts in my head. It works very well for that.
But, let’s face it. Over the centuries, page poetry has become stigmatized by many folks as indulgences of the rich-and-snooty. Books of poetry tended to gather dust on bookshelves.
Page poetry (especially as was taught in schools when I was growing up) could be a yawn-inducing experience. Poetry – at least the kind pedagogues seemed to favor — had the most gawd-awful and esoteric rules formulated by various poetry-makers in times past, all gathered together by the intelligentsia and assorted acolytes of High Culture.
If your teacher was into it, as mine often were, it was a grand thing; otherwise, not so much. Teachers who got stuck on guiding their charges through parsing and analyzing some “Great Poem” or other, killed more poets a-borning than any other thing, probably.
Like calculus and philosophical debate, it was stuff for the Big-Brains (or folks who wanted to look like they had some.)
Page poetry was a good thing to inflict on children. Like regular doses of cod-liver oil or whatever, it was supposed to keep them growing and make them strong. By the time the children hit adulthood, it was often not a thing remembered fondly.
“Dull” was page poetry’s other name.
Committing poetry to a page (if you were not an academic sort), was a weird sort of hobby at best. Solitary you could string the words from your heart across assorted pages and realize all kinds of gains. Rigorous mental exercise, mastery of an art form, personal catharsis, and insights are possibilities that come to mind.
A common fate for these homemade page poems was to be stuck in a drawer where they moldered until the poet’s death, after which, they were probably tossed by the poet’s heirs.
If you were particularly proud of the page poems you constructed, you submitted them to magazines in exchange for magazine issues, sold them to greeting card makers for pennies, or spent money on producing self-published chapbooks to give to all of your family and friends.
If you got good at producing poems, you might even consider spending time creating them “on demand” as a busker.
When the Internet revved up, you could also post them on websites or on social networks and then wonder whether they ever reached anybody. (The page poem launch very often hits a wall of dead silence.)
The problem with even the best page poetry is that it is only one-half of a dialogue. The maker makes, but doesn’t know whether anybody is out there listening, doesn’t feel like he or she is being heard. It gets to feel like you’re talking to yourself.
Stage poetry (as spoken word has been called) is something else. When it’s done well and the audience is lively, it flies. Performers and audiences can get caught up in a group hug-fest.
Some poets are raucous; they rant and rave, yell and shout. Others are calm and relaxed.
There are poets who make you laugh and poets who make you cry. Many of them bare their deepest secrets and rock your heart.
Some weave intricate verbal patterns that enthrall you in a web of sound.
Others parse out a problem using simple words that drill down into the core of it, reframing and rearranging your mind.
Stage poetry can be inspiring. A spoken word poem can be stimulating and entertaining when it’s good.
When several good poets get together it can turn into a jazz jam, a live performance never to be repeated in exactly the same way. It can be a feast.
More importantly, even when the poetry or the performance is not so good, stage poetry is about connection. The poet speaks. The audience listens. Good performers take their listeners flying; bad performers get a lot of points for trying.
A TASTE OF SPOKEN WORD
To give you a taste, here’s one of my favorite slam poems, “Legacy,” presented in this YouTube Video published by Button Poetry. It features poet Tui Scanlon performing for Hawaii during the prelims at the 2014 National Poetry Slam.
Button Poetry was founded in 2011 by poets Sam Cook and Sierra DeMulder. Since then it’s become the largest digital distributor of spoken word in the world. The Button Poetry videos are shared on websites like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and NPR. Their YouTube channel has over 900,000 subscribers. Click here to check them out:
SPOKEN WORD INTERNATIONAL
These days, commentators note that spoken word has “gone mainstream.” Poetry meant to be performed – performance poetry – is winning accolades from audiences of regular people. Some of those people get up on stage and do their own spoken word pieces before sometimes massive crowds.
All over the world, wherever people gather, there are open mic nights, where folks get up in front of a crowd and share their words – angry poetry, love poems, poems of protest and politics, stand-up poetry, punk poetry, jazz poetry, nonsense rhymes, and rap and hip-hop fusion poetry.
There are regular organized gatherings of amateur and casual poets.
There are poetry slams where the competition and audience participation can get intense.
There are shows by professional poets. At festivals, you’ll find performing poets sharing the stage with musicians, actors, dancers and other performing artists.
On the Internet, the variety (and the sheer number) of posted poetry videos boggles the mind.
There are even spoken word workshops you can attend to become a better performing poet.
And, in the schools, performance poetry and spoken word has opened a door to the impact and the power of words for children of all ages.
Smith’s plan to bring poetry back to the masses worked. Words were spoken…and more and more and more words keep being spoken, mostly because people are definitely listening.
The quality of the works vary, of course, and that seems to be a part of the whole scene.
THE BEST POEM
My benchmark “best poem” has no words. It was an exchange between my friend Wide Garcia, who chairs the meeting of the Maui Live Poets that meets in the Makawao Library on the third Wednesday night of each month, and a young man with Aspergers Syndrome.
During one of our regular meetings, we were doing a round-robin, where all of the poets in attendance took a turn to present a poem to the crowd. A young man came in midway through the first session and sat down in an empty chair. He sat quietly and watched as the poets read or spoke their work, watched as the audience responded.
It’s Wide’s practice to ask everyone who comes to the gatherings if they would like to present a poem. After the first round was done and the poets were mingling and talking story, he approached the young man, who was sitting there, seemingly detached from the hubbub around him, and asked whether the boy had work he would like to share.
The young man did not answer, so Wide asked again, looking deeply into the teenager’s eyes.
There was a pause. Then the boy lifted his right hand with all of his fingertips held together like a spear-point and touched the middle of his chest, fingers pointed right at his heart. He gestured, moving his arm outward towards Wide and opened his hand, palm-up, as if he were offering his heart.
Wide made the same gesture back to the boy and grinned at him. The boy just looked back at him out of his own world.
And, for me, that became my benchmark “good poem” – the one I remember every time I start constructing another one. A good poem offers up your heart to another person. It’s even better when that other person offers up his or her heart back.
This YouTube video, “Why You Should Talk to Strangers,” features Robbie Stokes, Jr. giving a TEDxFSU talk at the Florida State University. It was published in 2013.
In it, Stokes, a former Washington, DC events coordinator for a congressional delegate to the United States House of Representatives, tells how, the year before, he quit his job, sold all of his stuff and chased his dream about wandering around the world and talking to strangers.
Over the course of 110 days, he traveled the world, visiting 17 countries. He spent his time talking to strangers. Here’s what he learned….
Somewhere in there, Stokes also created the I TALK TO STRANGERS Foundation with a bunch of help from his friends. They call themselves a “social movement whose philosophy encourages and challenges individuals to create genuine relationships through meeting new people.”
The Foundation’s “initiatives,” – an impressive array of projects, programs and events organized in North America, Africa and Southeast Asia is detailed in the 2012 – 2017 Foundation Report.
GROWING UP CONNECTED
I grew up in a miniscule place. Molokai is the fifth largest island in the Hawaiian island chain. It measures a mere 38 miles the long way and 10 miles across at its widest point.
A lot of the island is empty. The people cluster in a few communities scattered here and there on the island.
When I was growing up, the population of the entire island stood at around a little over 5,000 folks. Wikipedia says a “town” has anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 people. Back then, according to this, the whole island of Molokai would have qualified as a small, very rural town.
For me, there were no “strangers,” only cousins and aunties and uncles I hadn’t met yet. Even the grown-ups who weren’t officially related to me were “aunty” and “uncle.” It was good manners and proper to notice people and to greet them and to “talk story.”
It was only later, when I got off that little rock, that I encountered the rule about not talking to strangers.
I got into all kinds of trouble for acting polite. (“What do you mean, I can’t talk to that guy on the street corner? We see him every day. He’s really nice, you know….)
I never did get the “don’t talk to strangers” thing right. Maybe that was a good thing.
TALKING TO STRANGERS CAN BE GOOD FOR YOU
According to the smarty-pants who study such things, just noticing the folks around you and being noticed is a good thing. (They can’t “prove” that yet, but there are strong indications, they say.)
In 2014, a study published by psychologists at the University of Michigan was one of the first to look specifically at neighborhood social cohesion and heart attacks (a fact of life for more than 700,000 Americans every year, it says here).
The study looked at all kinds of factors and the neighbor connection was just one correlation, but as researcher Eric Kim suggested, being friendly with neighbors has some pretty obvious benefits.
Neighbors who know each other tend to check in on one another. They talk story and share health-related information. They tend to watch out for each other. Often friendly neighbors share resources as a matter of course.
More importantly, the casual hand-wave and friendly “Hi, how are you?” adds up to a feeling that somebody sees you and acknowledges that you are there.
Just the feeling that somebody’s got your back is worth the effort to be friendly, if you can.
Other studies since then have shown that people who talk to the other people around them rather than staying inside their own little bubble when they travel on public transportation or zoning out in a checkout line or hiding behind a book at a table for one, report that they enjoy their daily commutes, doing non-recreational shopping, and feeding their faces more.
The everyday nitnoy annoyances get less stressful when you’re all in it together, it seems. If you can include and engage with familiar strangers (like the guy working the cash register, the barista serving up your fancy coffee fix, or even the person you see on the bus every day), there’s a warm fuzzy feeling that trails around after you all day long.
CAN TALKING TO STRANGERS MAKE YOU SMARTER?
Not only that, but all kinds of studies have shown that talking to strangers might even make you smarter.
It’s all based on a thing called the “confirmation bias.”
Every one of us tends to think the same thoughts over and over again. We look for evidence that our thinking is “right.”
We also tend to hang with people who think the way we think, act the way we act, and so on. It’s comfortable. You don’t even have to go into spasms about it.
Strangers, on other hand, “think different.” Often, that makes them annoying obstructions and challenges that you just want to ignore because they take you out of that comfortable space.
Sometimes, however, their different way of thinking may be just what you need to help you get past your own blind spots when you’re wrestling with a complex problem. Sometimes strangers can present some other way of looking at a thing that helps you move forward on some project.
You do the same for them. It isn’t a one-way street.
It could help you to think of strangers as exotic resources you can tap. What do they see? Why is it so different from your way of seeing? Is there something in there that you can use? Hmmm….
This could lead to exploratory journeys into parallel universes, you know.
WHAT IF YOU DON’T KNOW HOW?
I have figured out, though, that a lot of people really do have a hard time just talking to people who are different.
Take a look at this YouTube video posted by The Atlantic magazine in 2016. It is an episode of its If Our Bodies Could Talk series.
The fact that talking to strangers is a skill is an important concept. A skill can be learned.
It does take a bunch of practice stepping outside your comfort zone. It also requires a certain recognition of other people’s boundaries as well as an acknowledgement of your own …..
Sure it looks funny at first. You do get better at it.
Okay. Now for an important message from your Inner Smarty-Pants….
First of all, if you’re going to get outside your comfort zone, you still have to pay attention to what your body, your head and your heart is telling you. If a person or a situation gives you the shivers, do not, not, NOT ignore those feelings in the name of “open-mindedness.”
Whatever else, fear is always real. You are feeling it and it is giving you a very important message. Your fear is your early-warning-system and it deserves your attention.
The fear you feel may not even raise a blip on somebody else’s radar. But, then, it’s not somebody else’s fear.
Get out of there and then when you can breathe again, check in with yourself and try to figure out what set off the alarms. Was it something tangible, something that makes your backing away a sensible move?
If so, thank your fear and get on with your life. If not, then take the fearful reaction as a signal that you need to slow down and take smaller steps towards your goal of being more open to experience.
Just ‘cause you’re trying to be more open-minded does not mean you want your brains to fall out nor do you want to fall into a vortex of new experiences that confuse you so much you can’t even think straight.
Keep practicing as you can. It’ll get you accustomed to testing and challenging yourself . It will also re-set your fear monitor.
Of course, as with all these types of things, it’s always important to remember boundaries.
Don’t spark up a conversation with someone who’s not interested.
Don’t push it if people don’t reciprocate.
Be respectful of other people’s time and mindful of other people’s boundaries.
If you’re lucky, you might find someone else interested in sparking up a random little conversation as well.
Since 1956 the Compline Choir has filled St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, WA with the uplifting holy sounds of chant. The service happens at 9:30 p.m. every Sunday. It is only 30 minutes long.
There are no sermons, no priests – just readings of psalms and some thoughtful musings interspersed between an incredible, soothing, peace-inducing sound.
This YouTube video, The Compline Choir at St. Mark’s Cathedral (Seattle, WA), was published in 2014. It was the first one to be produced and commissioned by the Choir and gives you a taste of what they do.
(The video was filmed by Markdavin Obenza and includes excerpts from the Compline Service for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels on September 29, 2013.)
A BALM FOR THE WEARY SOUL
Chanted prayer is an ancient tradition, one that modern-day science has found is good medicine for the body and for the mind.
Dr. Alan Watkins, a neuroscientist and co-founder of Complete Coherence, a European business leadership development firm, has explored many different ways to help clients maintain high levels of performance during challenging and stressful times.
In 2008, when Watkins was a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, he announced, “We have recently carried out research that demonstrates that the regular breathing and musical structure of chanting can have a significant and positive physiological impact.”
Watson and his team followed five monks at Heiligenkreuz Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in the village of Heiligenkreuz in the southern part of the Vienna woods, north-west of Baden in Lower Austria.
The monastery, founded in 1133, is the oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world. The monks are famous for their Gregorian chants.
The scientists followed the monks around and measured their heart rates and blood pressure throughout a 24-hour period. The heart rates and blood pressure numbers dipped to their lowest point in the day when the monks were chanting.
Dr Watkins pointed to similar previous studies documenting the neurological effects of sound supported their findings that chanting seems to lower blood pressure, increase performance hormone levels as well as reduce anxiety and depression and improve mood.
One remarkable story is the one French audiologist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis tells in a 1978 documentary called “Chant.” The good doctor was called in to help the monks of a Benedictine monastery who were suffering from deep fatigue, depression and physical illness.
The doctor found that the sad, sick monks had been complying with a new church edict that had halted the centuries-old practice of chanting prayers throughout their day to mark their connection with the Divine.
When Tomatis convinced the monks to re-establish their rituals of prayer, the religious community regained its vitality. The monks were healthier and happier.
Not only is chanting beneficial, but it seems that just listening to chanting can be good for your health.
Some scientists believe music can stimulate the production of endorphins—natural opiates known to generate feelings of excitement and satisfaction.
It’s also possible, they say, that music helps the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate more effectively and that it creates new neural pathways in the brain.
Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Stanley, who is the head of the complementary medicine program at Central Minnesota’s Heart Center at St. Cloud Hospitals, found that having her patients listen to chant helped to ease chronic pain.
When you play chant, Sister Stanley said, “about 85 percent of the time, the body goes into very deep healing modes. It’s quite remarkable.”
Listening to the Compline (and to other forms of chanting as well) can foster inner peacefulness and healing, it seems.
ROOTS OF THE COMPLINE
The Compline has its roots in the everyday life of medieval Catholic monastics. It is the last service in a cycle of “offices” or “hours” sung in the Western Church throughout the day, the prayer before going to bed.
During medieval times, in the Catholic monasteries and convents in the west, the resident monks and nuns spent their days in solitary and communal prayer as well as doing more mundane work. (For all of them staying mindful of the Divine in their lives was one of their primary jobs, actually.)
Residents in the monasteries were more isolated from the world than those living in convents and friaries, who spent their days doing good works in their communities, but all of them prayed separately and together throughout the day, reciting formal sets of prayers and meditations created by the leaders of their various orders.
The timing and the formats of the monastic prayer services that marked the divisions of the religious day evolved as leaders of the various religious groups set up rules for how their followers should live and work and pray. Much of it was pretty much standardized for the different religious communities in the west by the fifth century.
During medieval times (and pretty much into the 20th century) each religious day was divided into eight parts (also known as canonical “hours”). The set prayers for each of these divisions made up the Liturgy of the Hours.
Lauds (morning prayer) sanctified the morning, preparing the inhabitants for the day. In medieval religious communities, that day started very early.
Terce (mid-morning), sext (midday), none (mid-afternoon) were known collectively as the “Little Hours”. They were celebrated with short prayers intended for use during breaks in manual or scholarly work.
Vespers (evening prayer) was for coming together to give thanks for the blessings received during the day and for work done well.
Compline (night prayer) was designed to be said as the last prayer before going to sleep. It starts with an examination of consciousness and includes a contemplation of mortality and a prayer for inner peace.
This service of quietness and reflection before rest completed the day for the religious. In certain monasteries, it marked the beginning of a period of silence observed by the whole community (including guests) throughout the night until the morning service.
The Night Offices (also called Vigils, and, in more modern times, Matins) were performed very early in the morning while it was still dark. During this time you were supposed to contemplate the mysteries of salvation.
In some of the more rigorous monasteries, the monks were supposed to get up in the middle of the night to recite these prayers and to meditate.
There was one other “hour” called Prime, which was celebrated between Lauds and Terce.
Around the year 382, it seems that in at least one monastery there were some monks who couldn’t get up for their morning prayers after spending half the night doing their Vigil practice.
To keep the monks from staying in bed until mid-morning instead of getting up to start their day, all of the monks were called together for Prime when they prayed together before heading out to do their tasks. The practice proved to be effective and was adopted by other monasteries.
(Prime was abolished by revisions of the Second Vatican Council when church leaders looked at ways to make the practices of a contemplative religious “more humane.”)
Until the 20th century, the Compline was pretty much unknown to the general public and worshippers who were not a part of a monastic community.
ONE MAN’S VISION
St. Mark’s Compline Choir and the Compline Service was the brainchild of American composer and liturgist Peter Hallock (November 19, 1924 to April 27, 2014) who was organist and choirmaster at the St. Mark’s Cathedral from 1951 to 1991.
When he attended the Royal School of Church Music in England, from 1949 to 1951, Hallock was one of the few American students allowed to chant the Office of Compline with fellow classmates in the crypt of the Canterbury Cathedral.
When Hallock became the organist at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, he invited twelve music students from his alma mater, the University of Washington, to gather at the St. Mark’s to study and sing plainsong. Their text was from the Proposed Book of Common Prayer (1928) of the Church of England, set to medieval chants.
By late 1956, this study group evolved into the Compline Choir. Not all of the choir members were religiously oriented. They were, however, excellent musicians and they loved liturgical music.
The all-male group grew in number as they began singing the Office of Compline for others on Sunday nights. It was the first offering of the Office in English on a regular basis (outside of Anglican monasteries) in North America. For a number of years they sang to an empty church.
Starting in 1962, the St. Mark’s Compline service was broadcast live over the radio on KING-FM.
Perhaps that is why when the “Summer of Love” in the late 1960’s turned young people’s minds towards more spiritual practices, colorfully dressed young people discovered the beauty and peacefulness of the Compline, and began attending the service at St. Mark’s in droves.
The congregation grew, practically overnight, from zero attendance to several hundreds packed into the church.
Hallock led the Compline Choir from 1956 to 2009. (The choir is now directed by Jason Anderson, who joined the choir in October, 2004.) The services continue to be well-attended and thousands more tune in to the radio broadcast or listen via the Internet.
As time went on, a renewed interest in plainsong and other forms of liturgical music as well as the Compline grew. Over fifty groups now offer a regular Office of Compline in the United States and Canada..
The once-obscure medieval religious service has become a regular spiritual practice for many modern people. It is also a lovely way to help yourself get to sleep.
PETER HALLOCK INTERVIEW
Composer Peter Hallock talks about his music and his experiences at St. Mark’s Cathedral in this YouTube video published by Markdavin Obenza in 2013. The video features session footage and music from the Byrd Ensemble’s CD release, Peter Hallock: Draw On Sweet Night.
Sometimes, it really is only a little thing that can make a big difference. A genuine smile may brighten someone’s day. A kind word or a sincere expression of appreciation can help somebody keep on going through tough times.
“Loving-kindness” was what the Tibetan Buddhist crazy wisdom master Chogyam Trungpa Rimpocheused to call it, and for him and his students it was a most pertinent practice. It helps alleviate the suffering in the world, the old masters all say.
And, yeah: It’s a cliché. But that’s the thing about clichés…often they are just old truths that we need to keep telling each other as reminders.
It’s often really, really little, this loving-kindness thing. It’s pretty much ordinary and every-day. Still, loving-kindness is the best way us humans have for connecting with each other.
The original story by Elizabeth Silance Ballard was first published in a 1974 issue of Home Life magazine as “Three Letters from Teddy.” Over the next three decades it spread, even making an appearance in one of the CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL books. It is a good story.
Here’s another video produced by the Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas that was published on YouTube by Sarheed Jewels in 2011. It asks: What if you could see other people’s problems? How would that affect you?
One of the loveliest online sites about loving-kindness in action is the one put up by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (RAK), a group of educators and community leaders led by Gary Dixon who are all dedicated to the proposition that us humans are meant to go around spreading warm fuzzies. Their mission is to encourage you to go forth and be kind.
The RAKtivists believe that kindness is teachable and contagious. They can point to a lot of scientific evidence that seems to validate the fact that doing kind things is actually very good for your own health.
Among the findings they highlight are the following facts:
Kindness produces oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Oxytocin, in turn causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide which dilates the blood vessels. This aids in lowering blood pressure and helps protect the heart increasing overall heart-health.
Harvard Business School did a survey of happiness in 136 countries in 2010 that found that people who were generous financially were happiest overall.
People who volunteer tend to experience fewer ache and pains. One study showed that people 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were at 44 percent more likely to live longer. Other studies have shown that engaging in acts of kindness produces endorphins – the brain’s natural painkiller.
There’s a thing called the “helper’s high,” according to research from Emory University, that is a consequence of the fact that often when you’re kind to someone else your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up. Maybe that’s because acts of kindness apparently stimulate the feel-good anti-depressant serotonin, which helps to heal wounds, calm you and make you happy.
So…here’s one other benefit to the whole kindness thing: When you’re kind to somebody else, it just naturally bounces back on you. And isn’t that a very good thing?
Here’s a poem:
I PROMISED ME
No one ever promised
That life would always be true and fair
Or that there’d be a shelter from the storm,
A warm fire waiting there,
That happy would perch on your head
And belt out one more song,
That reaching out a solid hand
Would find other fingers reaching, just as strong,
Another IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): an understanding that generosity is not a down-payment on love. [Generosity is spill-over when you’re feeling full.]
I am reading a book, LOVE LET GO: Radical Generosity for the Real World, by Laura Sumner Truax and Amalya Campbell. It is a story about an amazing church congregation in Chicago, the LaSalle Street Church, who received a totally unexpected windfall: a check for $1,530,116.78.
The check represented the church’s share of proceeds from the sale of an urban property that they had bought in the 1970s with three other churches. The land had been used for a desperately needed low-income housing project in the neighborhood, Atrium Village, which had served the purpose for more than 25 years.
The church’s heartful investment had been returned…in spades.
This 2017 YouTube video of a “100 Huntley Street” interview with pastor Laura Sumner Truax, one of the authors of the book, is a kind of a teaser for the book.
As Truax says, the church leaders made a wild, counter-intuitive move that changed the game on a clear day in September, 2014. The leaders used ten percent of the windfall money to tithe back to the church members. Each church member received a $500 check with the injunction to go out and do good in God’s world.
The leadership of the church also encouraged the members to participating in the effort to study and pray on how they were going to allocate the rest of the windfall funds, the “Big Money.” More than half of the congregation spent nine months on the project.
The book tells the story of what happened and what the people involved in this exploration learned as a result. It was and remains an ever-evolving, extraordinary process and journey, one that makes my heart smile.
THE GIVING CHURCH
LaSalle Street Church was built in 1886 in the near north side of Chicago by Swedish immigrants who never once worshipped in it. The congregation had been left bankrupt by the effort of its construction.
Its history of hard luck and scarcity continued throughout the church’s long history of involvement with a community that is diverse and sometimes volatile. One of the primary principles the church has always held to is this: Giving is better than receiving.
They really did walk their talk even though most of the time the church was, like their neighbors, “just getting by.”
Giving didn’t change the church’s financial circumstances but it did change “the way LaSalle wore its scarcity,” as authors Laura Sumner Truax and Amalya Campbell lyrically puts it. They did it with style and their acts of generosity were truly appreciated.
During the 1960s, when Chicago exploded in the violence and vitriol of the race riots, local youth protected the LaSalle Street Church from burning. The angry young ones who were pressing for change remembered. They protected the people who helped them through their hard times.
The church has always been a major light in the community. Senior citizens who needed company and a meal, the kids looking for sanctuary and a safe place to go after school and residents who were caught up in a legal system they could not navigate all found what they needed at the church.
This video, which was put together by Faustino Productions in 2015, was published on YouTube by tinogon1942. It shows the aftermath of the Chicago riots on the west side of Chicago after Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 as the Supreme’s “Stop In the Name of Love” plays.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Chicago officials embraced the concept of urban renewal and started creating high-density, high-rise dwellings like Cabrini-Green and relocated people from the poorer parts of town to these new developments. The joke going ’round then among the city residents was that the program would have been more aptly named “urban removal.”
In reaction to this government program, LaSalle Street Church’s senior pastor at the time, Bill Leslie, preached a commitment to turf. La Salle stood at the edge of communities in transition. On one side, some of the city’s neediest residents lived. On the other side was some of the most expensive real estate in Chicago.
Leslie thought that the church could be a meeting place where everyone was welcomed. He and his congregation of fifty-some members believed that at the bottom of it all the church was all about all of us people being in this old mess of a world all together.
The members who were better-off materially saw themselves in their poorer neighbors’ situation. They understood the struggles and they also believed that they needed their neighbors as much as their neighbors needed them. They looked for a way to help.
In this they were aided by local congressman Robert L. Thompson, an African-American who was also a long-time resident of the city. Thompson worried over the impact of urban renewal on the thousands of his constituents who were facing displacement.
When Thompson was offered a bribe of ten thousand dollars to influence the award of the rights to the land occupied by the LaSalle’s row house neighbors, he refused. Then he called Leslie.
Somehow the congregation found what they thought could be a solution to their neighbor’s problems. There was a plot of land for sale that sat to the west of the church, juxtaposed against the homes of high society to the east. It was big enough and near enough for a housing development to which their neighbors could relocate and still be neighbors.
Over the next two months Leslie rallied LaSalle and several other churches to invest one thousand dollars each in a campaign to secure the land rights. (When you consider that Leslie’s own salary hovered around three thousand dollars at the time, it was a goodly sum of money back then.)
The housing project that grew there, Atrium Village, was the first housing development in the country to be financed and constructed by state, private and church funding. It took years for all the players to finally agree to the vision of a truly diverse project: 50 percent black and 50 percent white; 50 percent market-rate and 50 percent under-market rate rents.
The first apartment tower was dominated by a nine-story open atrium. That atrium gave the “village” its name and it lessened a significant fear factor. The central atrium left no dark hallways in the building. Light flooded in.
Also, there were glass elevators that allowed light and visibility and the courtyard area around the buildings provided safe places for children to play.
Atrium Village opened to a flood of three thousand applicants. It became a solid anchor in the community and was a testing ground for finding the best practices for community-based housing. It was also the first of three building projects the church undertook in the neighborhood, all of which focused on building community engagement among people who were different from one another.
The other two were a building for senior housing and another for a legal-aid clinic.
Here’s a short YouTube video, a for-rent ad for Atrium Village apartments, published in 2012 by apartmenthomelivingA.
In the early 2000s, almost 25 years after Atrium opened its doors, La Salle got word that the primary investor in the development wanted to sell its interest. The restrictive covenants on Atrium would soon expire without possibility of renewal. The city was in the process of demolishing Cabrini-Green, the public-housing complex of 30-story buildings that had been a long-time neighborhood fixture.
The new model for government thinking on the public-housing problem was dubbed “scattered site” housing. Instead of monolithic structures, the vision now was lower-density, low-rise units that served a diverse population – exactly the vision that the people who made Atrium Village happen advocated.
The times they were a-changing…again.
Even though the churches who initiated the Atrium Village project represented only a 15 percent interest in the property, as a voting bloc, they could stop the sale of the property. Two of the partner churches faced almost certain closure by their denominations because their memberships had dwindled down to mere handfuls.
The church memberships had watched the Cabrini-Green towers come down, knowing that the retail developers were also watching it happen. Condominiums that cost upwards of half a million dollars were being planned.
The churches, all of whom were like LaSalle and framed their ministry on being bridge churches, understood that their neighborhoods were changing. They finally reached an agreement to sell their interest while negotiating hard for more units set aside for the working poor.
They were supported in this intention by the Chicago city tax assessor, their local alderman, and various community groups. Any redevelopment plan would be required to have 20 percent of its units available at below-market rate.
THE REST OF THE STORY….
And so it happened: the sale, and then the check, and then the tithe from church to its people.
You’ll have to read the book to get the rest of the story.
An interesting history of the church building and the neighborhood provides a glimpse at the background for this story. Here’s the YouTube video, “130 Years – History of the LaSalle Street Church Sanctuary Building,” which was put together and published by the church in 2016.