Posts Tagged ‘words’

The Post – Can Surrender = Win?

February 29, 2008

Writers pay attention to words. It’s an occupational hazard, like a carpenter paying attention to what’s the best hammer or a painter finding the best brush. Words are the tools of the trade. So I’m always paying attention to things like “Does that word have the subtlety of meaning I need?” Or :”Does this word have a second meaning that might confuse?” Writers also think about overlooked possibilities with the words they choose. “Is there a meaning you can give this word that no one usually associates with it?”

Surrender. I was thinking about that word a lot lately. You hear that word and immediately thoughts of loss, failure, futility of effort, come up. It’s hard to see it any other way. Harder still is to get your head around the possibility that to surrender, could be to win.

Even as I say the word, the competitive part of me that wants to fight for my rights, get ahead, succeed in life, cringes. I can feel my stomach knot, an uncomfortable churning inside, the hair on the back of my neck raise up. My brain yells, “NO!” The thing about surrender, though, especially in our close relationships, is that if done well, both walk away with something, both end up feeling better.

When things are always viewed in terms of win or lose, there’ s no room for anything else. There’s no “other option” possible. No wiggle room for a place that might leave both parties feeling a bit more empowered and a bit less stomped on. If there is a winner, there’s always a loser. A loser is not going to be happy and when someone in an altercation isn’t happy, it’s going to stay alive and fester. Look at World War I. When Germany lost, the terms dictated to them were so onerous, so harsh, it bred the even worse horror known as World War II. Losers are more apt to pull back, regroup, plot the next battle, seek revenge.

It’s not always possible to seek “surrender.” Some situations just don’t give that option. Then the best option is to be a generous winner. But as much as possible, taking a step back, giving the situation “more room,” might yield a more satisfying result. Take something all knotted up, spread it out on the floor, and you often can spot the tangles. Spread the tangles out more, and you have room to pick them apart, unravel them, possibly even remove them completely.

It’s the law of physics. The more room given to particles in a closed container, the less pressure there is. They spread out evenly. Close things down and pressure builds. Tighten down the valves enough and things might explode.

Surrendering in a relationship to the possibility of a greater good, allows time and room. Spread out the mess, find the knots, pick out the tangles. It might be possible to save the whole ball of string. Even if not, it might be possible to salvage a good bit of it.

So, a new twist on “surrender” – see it as a win? Something for both the writer, and the human being inside the writer, to ponder.

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The Post – In Art: What is Not There, Makes it Useful

February 10, 2008

I had about three other posts in mind for today. Each one flooded my brain though, making it impossible for me to find the “simple thread” at its heart. That means they’re meant for another day when my mind can absorb them and sift through the layers to the simple truth at their cores. Sometimes, what is not there, makes it useful. By clearing something away, you see what is waiting there to be discovered. As soon as I set these other topics aside, my eyes landed on what is meant to surface today.

There is a book from the 6th century B.C. written by Lao Tsu, called the Tao Te Ching. The book is described as the essence of Taoism, contained in 81 chapters, which are more like 81 poems or pages because the entire book is about 5000 words. Don’t let it fool you. The shortest entries are the hardest to decipher. What is not there makes it useful.

Entry Eleven is one I could actually figure out-at least most of it. We won’t discuss those last 2 lines whose meaning in view of the rest I still haven’t figured out.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

While Lao Tsu probably wrote them as rules to live by, I realized that they also apply to the creative arts:

Michaelangelo said that the sculptures he did were already there, fully formed in the rock. He just released them by cutting away all that was not the sculpture.

In photography, the photo’s essence is all about what to include and what to exclude. Even when you print the photo, it is often cropped first, to remove the things that don’t contribute the the unity of the photo. Leave in too much, and you dilute the power of what remains.

I recently took an oil painting seminar on color theory. The artist, Caroline Jasper, shared her process of creating seascapes. She started with some photographs of boats docked in a small port town. Her next step was to make some quick sketches, deciding which boats and buildings to keep and what to cut. By eliminating the excess, what remained had power. Only then did she proceed to actually painting the scene.

In writing, the same is true. Whether fiction or nonfiction – there is a slant, a premise, a particular viewpoint. By the very nature of selecting a perspective, some things will be excluded because they don’t support the main focus of that piece.

If there is any process in writing where “what is not there makes it useful” it would have to be editing. It is the writing equivalent of cutting away the excess stone, cropping the photograph, deciding what elements stay in the painting and which are removed. If anyone doubts the importance of removing what is not needed, consider the Gettysburg Address experience.

On November 19th, 1863, many dignitaries, including President Lincoln, gathered to dedicate the cemetery for the thousands of soldiers who died during the Civil War battle that took place there in July of that year. The main speaker was the famed orator of the day, Edward Everett. A former US Senator, US Representative, Governor of Massachusetts, and President of Harvard University, Everett was held in high esteem. Lincoln’s invitation to attend was actually an afterthought. Everett delivered a well-crafted masterpiece that was 13,607 words long and took 2 hours to deliver. Lincoln spoke for 2-3 minutes and delivered a speech that ran approximately 10 sentences long and had about 272 words. Lincoln considered his speech a failure, yet that is the speech everyone remembers to this day. Edward Everett, himself acknowledged that reality in a letter to Lincoln the very next day. He told Lincoln:

“I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

To remove the excess is to enhance the power of the creation. When I set the other topics aside, this one came up to be discovered. What was not there, made it useful.

The Post – When You’re Mad, Give a Gift?

February 8, 2008

Yesterday morning’s reading for my online spirituality course with Thich Nhat Hanh was counter-intuitive to say the least. Some might read it and say “in your dreams.” Others might look at it and say, “That’s manipulative.” But I read it, and in spite of myself, I really did understand it. In fact, I’ve felt it happen now and then.

His words:

“There may be times when you are angry with someone, and you try everything you can to transform your anger, but nothing seems to work. In this case, the Buddha proposes that you give the other person a present. It sounds childish, but it is very effective. When we’re angry with someone, we want to hurt them. Giving them a present changes that into wanting to make them happy. So, when you are angry with someone, send him a present. After you have sent it, you will stop being angry with him. It’s very simple, and it always works.

Don’t wait until you get angry to go and buy the present. When you feel very grateful, when you feel you love him or her so much, then go and buy the present right away. But don’t send it; don’t give it to the other person yet. Keep it. You may have the luxury of having two or three presents stored secretly in your drawer. Later, when you feel angry, take one out and deliver it. It is very effective. The Buddha was very smart.”

Thich Nhat Hanh in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

Now at first thought, the idea of giving someone a gift when you want to throttle them, seems impossible, even laughable. Maybe something that blows up? But a real, honest-to-goodness gift? I don’t think so.

And the other person might think: “What’s this? You trying to make me feel guilty and manipulate me into liking you again? You’ve got hopes. Now I’m even angrier at you for pulling this!”

Yet, all skepticism aside, I know what he means and hard as it can be at that moment, it’s true. And it’s not childish. Child-like maybe. A big difference which I’ll mention below.

There have been times when I was angry with my husband and all sense of love and remembering “why I married him” evaporated into fantasies of how best to wring his neck. I’m sure he felt the same way. Revenge plots, not gift ideas, were the order of the day. Yet even in that moment there was that small voice that said “Do you love him?” And of course, the answer deep down was , “Yessss. I love him.” And the voice would answer, “Then if you love him, you cannot act that way.”

I’d remember that if something were to suddenly threaten him, I’d be right there by his side to protect or help him. I’d also remember the many good things shared, times his love saved me, the times things he did just melted my heart. The moment of capitulation would soon follow.

The moment of capitulation when trying to “hold your grudge” is the moment when you want to hate, but instead you remember and feel even a tiny inkling of your love. You feel frustrated with the Universe, for sure. My thoughts would run something like: “I really wanted my pound of flesh and instead, here’s the Universe deflating a good rage.” You feel the struggle of “But I’m mad at him,” versus “He’s my friend and I hate this. Can we just get back to being friends?”

The times that I’ve tried the counter-intuitive approach and gave in to the part that loves, it was like a crack in the dam of anger. By offering even just some tidbit of a compliment, or telling him something like “I’m really upset because I love you and I hate being at odds with you,” it was the thing that started to bring us both back to center. By refraining from revenge and instead remembering the love, by trusting to kindness instead of attacking, it made “space” for things to change. It became safe for both of us to leave our entrenched, polarized fortresses, hold up a flag of truce, meet in the middle, and discuss terms of surrender. And by the way, surrender is not “losing.” It’s “yielding” to a greater good. It’s the meeting of two to make something bigger and better than either one of us . . . or our egos.

I liked Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea to have a few gifts around, and to buy them when you are feeling those warm loving emotions for that person. The feelings will be stored in those gifts. When you take them out during anger, those objects release the good feelings back to you. What you stored in them – goodwill, love, the reminder that there are still good things between you – is like money in the bank you can withdraw at that moment. They are the tangible evidence that love existed, and they are the catalysts that start the process of softening the anger.

So perhaps it’s not so strange an idea after all, if you can just swallow the ego. I can see where it can bring things back from the brink. The gifts can be small – even a funny or loving card, just something that captures what is shared in the good moments. And it’s the lesson we can learn from kids.

If you watch kids play, one minute they’re fighting, two minutes later they’re friends again. Somebody picks up their marbles and runs home. A few minutes later they’re calling to ask if you can come over to play. Kids have the ability to live in the moment, not store up hostilities. They clear the air and move on. That’s probably what Thich Nhat Hanh meant by childish. I prefer the term “child-like” though. Childish can imply selfish, insensitive, immature. Child-like implies the best of being young – the ability to flow with things, to have an open mind, to be in the moment, to find awe in even the simplest things. Jesus said that we had to become like the little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe He meant the same thing as Thich Nhat Hanh.

In any event, one thing I do concur with for sure: The gifts should be bought when happy. I’d hate to see what I’d come home with during rage. 🙂

The Post – Thomas Paine and the inner rallying call

February 3, 2008

I posted Thomas Paine’s quote from Common Sense, yesterday – “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Being a history lover, particularly of the American Revolution, I always love to see what kinds of thoughts and words propelled so many people to throw away every last bit of “status quo,” and “security” to wage war against the 18th century superpower so as to right injustice.

I used to go to the racetrack in Saratoga, New York, every summer with my family. We’d have our $10 or $12 to spend on bets and knew that once that was gone, that was it. So we chose wisely. Even as kids, we knew that yeah, you could walk away with many months of allowance money if you won on the 100:1 shot. We also knew we’d actually go home broke from the racetrack that day because the 100:1 shot never came in. So we passed on it. Given the power of the British in the 1700s, colonial America would have been doing great to even be considered a 100:1 shot. So for that many people to still roll the dice on themselves and go for a dream, you just know there had to be powerful motivators. I look at Thomas Paine’s words and rank his as one of those motivating forces to fight injustice.

I also realize they have a timeless quality. Yes, they applied to the circumstances that let to the Revolution. They also could be a rallying flag for battles against other injustices such as those against race, religion, sexual orientation. Many thought slavery was right. For centuries many just accepted that a long-standing institution was not wrong. These days people make derogatory jokes, or poke fun at certain religious or ethnic or sexual groups, and because “it’s always been that way” it’s assumed it’s okay. I realize Paine’s words do have a rallying quality to fight those battles, no matter the century.

It occurred to me, though, when I posted them, that most people read those words and perceive that the battle, the threat, the enemy is “out there.” The British, or the Jews, or the gays, or the Irish or the Muslims or whatever group is currently the problem. I wondered though if even Thomas Paine knew that his words were really a call to a larger battle.

I stood in front of the mirror and for a split second, caught a glimpse of the real enemy. The true battle, underlying all others, is within. Our beliefs. Biases. Our view that “I’m fine but it’s them” – “those people” – “they’re the problem.” Even the most open-minded liberal who supposedly loves everyone might be surprised to look in their hearts and see the real answers to questions like: Who did I judge today? Who did I decide I was better than? Who did I proclaim a failure because they did something I didn’t agree with so they must be worth less than me?

The reality is we all do it and we do it so often we don’t even notice it. We do it because we always have, and because “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” But every once in a while, in the small second between thoughts of, “Well of course I’m better because I do this, and of course, they’re worse because they didn’t,” there’s that fleeting glimpse of the enemy. I see the enemy staring back at me in the mirror – the person whose heart is so sure it’s right, it’s hardened against anything else. The mind that is like a full glass of water – no room to add any more – so that no room exists to ask questions like, Am I really that good? Are “they” really that wrong? Or the most important question of all – “What if we’re all really the same, no better or worse than the other?”

No answers this morning. Just questions. When Voltaire said “Judge a man by his questions not by his answers,” maybe he was simply pointing out the importance of asking the questions. Questions can bring you to the mirror. The answers are perhaps less important. In fact, maybe the answers are the same for all of us. In the end, we all struggle with the same things because we’re all human. So it’s the questions, the stopping to ask, that matters. Deep down, we probably already know the answers, no matter who we are.

And by the way, don’t assume because I asked these questions, I won’t see that enemy staring back at me in the mirror tomorrow morning. I don’t think it ever leaves. I think it’s somebody that maybe just softens over time, and eventually might stare back at us and say “Yeah, I have been kind of a jerk, haven’t I?”