Monthly Archives: March 2015

Newsletter – March 2015









FW NOTE:  Some articles I want to share are really too long to be quoted in full, so for those only excerpts and a link are provided. Hopefully, my choices of excerpts will be helpful to you in deciding whether to read the whole piece…



   “You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.”

   “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

March Greetings, Dear Friends…

Last month’s newsletter focused on how important and central to my life, and, I believe, all “elder life,” “playing” – and the freedom to “play” – is. And, as I was preparing this newsletter, I came across Victor Frankl’s very intriguing idea. His notion was that a Statue of Liberty alone is an incomplete vision for any community or nation. It needs to be completed with its complement, a Statue of Responsibility…
   “The Statue of Responsibility was suggested first by scholar and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. He recommended “that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” He wrote: “Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.” [wikipedia]

Frankl’s valuing of freedom (“the negative aspect”) and responsibility (the “positive aspect”) are just the reverse of my own. “Responsibility” has never been an positive term for me. It always brings to mind some vague sense of debt I somehow owe that can never be fully repaid. “Freedom,” on the other hand, is a term that always helps me feel just a little bit lighter and more energized. I want to respond just as positively and energetically to Frankl’s other “half of the truth.”
This is because my experience has led me to believe that only mature freedom will allow us to develop a love for true responsibility. There is no question that my personal upbringing as a Catholic child in the 1940’s conditioned my negative view of “responsibility.” As best I can remember, most of what I desired to do was “bad” and what I was required to do was “good.” Not surprisingly, I resented and resisted the “required” and sought out the “desired.”
How might I have been raised to see both the “desired” and “required” as worth consideration and evaluation? In other words, how might I have been helped to see the light and dark sides of BOTH freedom AND responsibility – and approach them as a wholeness all of which I needed to understand, live with and manage?

A. S. Neill, the founder of the Summerhill School movement, understood the importance of supporting the learning of “mature freedom”…
   “The freedom to attend formal lessons or not at the school is a central feature of the school’s philosophy… Children are allowed to fill their time with freely chosen actions… There are no limits on the achievements in independent learning: children can do something they want as much as they want.”

On first encounter this philosophy seems extreme and impossibly impractical. Yet Summerhill has flourished for over 90 years, and that is because Neill understood the necessity for BOTH freedom AND responsibility. He titled his book, Freedom, Not License. I recommend it highly, not just as a model for schools, but as a model for communities and nations.
Neill’s vision of the cause and effect relationship between freedom and responsibility makes great sense to me. It is only through the freedom that allows us to make mistakes, experience their consequences – and connect those consequences to our behavior – that enables us to choose responsibility willingly and intelligently, that is, to do the responsible thing when no one is looking.

One of the very few times I parented really well was when Kate was just toddling. She hadn’t learned to talk yet and was wandering around the kitchen where Nancy had a pie baking in the oven. As Kate veered toward the stove, Nancy said, “No, no, Katie – that’s hot!” Something sparked in me, and I said, “Want to know what ‘hot’ is, Katie? Come on, I’ll show you…” Nancy looked as though I were a monster. Still, I took Kate’s wrist (I’m not a monster) and let her move it closer and closer to the oven while repeating “hot” to her. When she got about three inches away, she yanked her hand back and said, “hot.”
This is what I mean by allowing ourselves and others to make mistakes, experience their consequences and connect those consequences to our behavior. After that we tell Kate that the toaster, iron, radiator, etc., were “hot,” and she didn’t need burn herself to find out. With Neill, I believe this is how we learn to choose responsibility willingly and intelligently, that is, to do the responsible thing when no one is looking. When we’re not allowed to make our own choices and experience their full range of consequences, our ability to develop wisdom is hindered and even stunted.
It also seems to me this is why humans take so long to prepare for life; we need as much time as possible to live and learn from as many experiences as possible so we develop wisdom. Preventing mistakes – to ensure perfect report cards, resumés and relationships – means we prevent experience, learning and maturity. Sooner or later we will inevitably run up against a failure we cannot avoid or glibly “re-frame*,” and it will be exponentially more costly than a version we could have learned from much earlier. Portia Nelson suggests five repetitions of a mistake may be the average…
“There’s A Hole In My Sidewalk: Autobiography In Five Short Chapters”
Portia Nelson
Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit … but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
Chapter V
I walk down another street.
Now back to Victor Frankl’s idea for a “Statue of Responsibility.” I support it as a intellectual concept and artistic vision, but, the term “responsibility” raises deep imprintings in me of rules, sins and guilt. This is certainly not true for all, maybe not many, but it is for me. I spoke about this with dear friends Cindi and Lora last night, and, while Lora has a reaction not unlike mine, Cindi’s was quite different – “I have no problem with it – responsibility is an ideal!” And Cindi is one of the most responsible and free people I have ever met. Because I occasionally do have good sense, I hired her to run my consulting company, and she is the reason I had a company and have a pension. She is also, and has always been, more at ease with life than I have.
If my problem with “responsibility” isn’t yours, congratulations – and it might be for others you meet when they behave as strangely as I do on this dimension.
So to open myself to Frankl’s statue, I’m going to think of it as a “Statue of Contribution” to complement and balance the “Statue of Liberty.”

Not a bad set of bookends for a life – or a family, community, nation or world.

“Contribution” is something I give freely, and there in lies the wholeness. For me. freedom and contribution are intertwined – and together they are infinitely motivating because I experience the freedom as playful and the contribution as good. In this framing, as I play, I do good, and what could be more inspiring and satisfying than this?
Of course, when we are immature, which was until pretty recently for old Father William, many of our forms of “playing” were also immature and led neither to contribution nor satisfaction. That’s a reason why the Summerhill’s of the world are so essential – they help maturity, playing and contribution all grow early and together – and this his how we learn to “walk down another sidewalk…”
Much love, FW

*If you’d like to know more about “re-framing” and how it’s used in political propaganda:

FW NOTE:  I found this did for me exactly what its authors intended: it ‘sparked my moral imagination.’ It also helped me see the progressive vs. conservative divide as a function of time rather than moral character – and recognize I am a member of both camps…
   “…It is easy for progressives such as us two authors to be scornful of the conservatives, and to dismiss their views as retrograde. But the fact is: the values that we now embrace will also be supplanted. Even though there are some changes we will welcome, sooner or later society will slip away from us too. If we live long enough, we will experience that sense of outrage and incomprehension that perfectly good norms have been abandoned in favour of absurdities (that we can’t eat a sausage, or have a bath, or tear the battery out of our old gadgets, or drive our own car). We too will experience what it is like to be told that, whether through stupidity or wickedness, we were wrong.
   “What is the proper reaction to such change? Traditional moral theorising is surprisingly quiet on the subject. Inasmuch as it touches on changing norms at all, it assumes that they will be obviously bad (as the rise of Nazism now seems to us) or obviously good (that is, whatever we ourselves have been fighting for). Yet most such changes will seem like neither: merely inexplicable and uncomfortable. Must we fight them? Or ought we be resigned, or cynical?

   “We want to argue for a different approach. First, we believe that, just by considering the question of how our values might change in the next 100 years, we can begin to bridge the gap between now and then, and prepare ourselves for what is to come. Secondly, we believe that there is an idea of moral progress that can help us to peer into the future, to see how values might change in ways that we today could accept as for the better – even if it will not always be easy for us. Based on this, we will explore some modest predictions for 22nd-century morals.
   “So first, the question itself: what is it that our great-grandchildren will condemn us for? We believe that this is a very helpful question to ask. It alerts us to the contingency and particularity of our own moral views. It pricks the illusion that we are the pinnacle of something – the ‘end of history’ – and should therefore awaken us from any moral slumber. Yet it is different to asking simply ‘What are you or I doing wrong?’ This question, which implies we are not living up to current moral standards, is likely to inspire only shame or defensiveness. Our goal is a different one: it is to spark our moral imagination.”
Stefan Klein is a German physicist, essayist and science writer. His latest book, Survival of the Nicest (2014) was awarded ‘Science Book of the Year’ in its original German edition. He lives in Berlin.
Stephen Cave is an English philosopher and journalist. His latest book is Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation (2012). He lives in Berlin.

FW NOTE:  This is my first encounter with Andrew Solomon, and it will not be my last. His contrast between being young and old – especially in his re-interpretation of Rilke’s most famous quote – illuminated my own evolution past 70…
The following is adapted from a speech the author gave at the Whiting Writers’ Awards on March 5th.
   “…While all old people have been young, no young people have been old, and this troubling fact engenders the frustration of all parents and elders, which is that while you can describe your experience you cannot confer it…”
   “When one is young and eager, one aspires to maturity, and everyone older would like nothing better than to be young. We have equal things to teach each other. Life is most transfixing when you are awake to diversity, not only of ethnicity, ability, gender, belief, and sexuality but also of age and experience…”
   “…The worst mistake anyone can make is to perceive anyone else as lesser. The deeper you look into other souls—and writing is primarily an exercise in doing just that—the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes.”
   “’Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, or books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.’
   “The insight is tremendous, but he has it backwards. Belief in answers can get you through your early days, while the belief in questions, which is so much less tangible, takes a long time to arrive at. To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier. The belief that questions are precious whether or not they have answers is the hallmark of a mature writer, not the naïve blessing of a beginner…”
FW NOTE:  Our stories have such power! For many years now I’ve kept reminding myself that the way I phrase my life is the way I will live it. This unedited piece by Thomas Berry expands this power to the collective – and helps me remember that, as a species and a universe, we are between stories now…
For peoples, generally, their story of the Universe and the human role within the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. Only through this story of how the Universe came to be in the beginning and how it came to be as it is does a person come to appreciate the meaning of life or to derive the psychic energy needed to deal effectively with those crisis moments that occur in the life of the individual and in the life of the society. Such a story communicates the most sacred of mysteries …. and not only interprets the past, it also guides and inspires our shaping of the future.

* * *

The Universe story is the quintessence of reality. We perceive the story. We put it in our language, the birds put it in theirs, and the trees put it in theirs. We can read the story of the Universe in the trees. Everything tells the story of the Universe. The winds tell the story, literally, not just imaginatively. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything.

* * *

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we are in between stories. The Old Story—the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it—sustained us for a long time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purpose, energized action, consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. But now it is no longer functioning properly, and we have not yet learned the New Story.
About the Author: Thomas Berry was a Catholic priest of the Passionist order, cultural historian, cosmologist and “Earth scholar”. Among advocates of deep ecology and “ecospirituality”, he is famous for proposing that a deep understanding of the history and functioning of the evolving universe is a necessary inspiration and guide for our own effective functioning as individuals and as a species.


FW NOTE:  Sarah’s introduction gives a thorough disturbing overview of the personal and societal costs of the consumerist stories we continue to listen to – and she and YES! go on to show paths back to the truly good, and happy, life…
Editor’s note: The following are a few excerpts from Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, an anthology of work from YES! Magazine.

   “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” – Mahatma Gandhi

   “In the last 100 years, we got very confused about happiness. This is no small thing. The way we define happiness drives what we do, what we’re willing to sacrifice, and how we spend our money and our time…”
   “The postwar period was considered an economic success story, and especially in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a time when many were lifted out of poverty and the gap between rich and poor was much smaller than it is today. The growth of the economy as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rose steadily…”

   “But the GDP is an untrustworthy measure. It gauges economic activity, whether or not that activity means improvements. Dig a strip mine and sell the metals, minerals, or coal, and the GDP will thank you—even if you pollute the drinking water for thousands. Raise fresh food in your garden, share it with friends and with the local homeless shelter, and stay healthy and happy, and the GDP doesn’t budge.

   “The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), on the other hand, measures overall well-being; it subtracts out harmful things like crime, illness, farmland loss, and declining water quality, and adds in contributions to the economy that the GDP doesn’t count, like unpaid work in the home and volunteering in the community.

   “Until 1979, GDP and GPI both increased in the United States, more or less in tandem. But after 1979, something different happened. The GDP continued growing, while the GPI stalled. More and more of our time and resources were invested in economic growth, but it was no longer delivering happiness, especially for those still stuck in poverty.

   “Why did the size of the economy continue to grow while well-being stagnated?

   “The culprits are “a rising of income inequality combined with environmental and social costs rising faster than consumption-related benefits,” says Ida Kubiszewski and colleagues in a paper published inEcological Economics.

   “In other words, we’re not getting much happiness for all the time, money, and natural resources we’re using—and the benefits are going mostly to those at the top…”
   “If economic growth and consumerism aren’t a recipe for sustainable happiness, then how do we get it?

   “Sustainable happiness is a form of well-being that goes deep—it’s not a fleeting sensation of pleasure or a temporary ego boost. Instead, it is enduring because it taps into our most authentic aspirations and involves building relationships and practices that support us through good times and bad.

   “Sustainable happiness is built on a mutually supportive community. It grows out of the recognition that our well-being is linked to that of our neighbors. When we know that we can count on others in difficult times, that there is a place for everyone, and that we can make a meaningful contribution and be recognized for it, we have the foundations of sustainable happiness.

   “And sustainable happiness grows out of a healthy living Earth. At a very basic level, it comes from recognizing that each drink of water, each breath of air, the food that grows out of the soil or comes from the waters—all is possible because of the living ecosystems of the planet. Sustainable happiness goes deeper, though, to a celebration of the natural world even when it is not offering us a direct benefit.

   “The good news is that sustainable happiness is compatible with a healthy environment, an equitable world, and our own fulfillment. And it is contagious—the things that create well-being for one person tend to be good for others and for all life…”
– – –
Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and editor in chief of YES! Magazine. This piece was adapted from Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of YES! Magazine, and published by Berrett Koehler.



FW NOTE:  I love things that are both good and practical, that is, likely to work with human beings…


For promising students from subpar or middling urban high schools, there are plenty of scholarships, grants and programs to gain access to elite colleges. But once they’ve matriculated, there’s not always a safety net in place: they might be unprepared for the mountains of work, or overwhelmed by the distance from home, or shocked by the money they see their peers spending (or the amount of alcohol they’re drinking). With no familiar faces around, drop-out rates for these students run high.

Deborah Bial was a New York City teacher in the late 1980s when a former student explained to her why he had walked away from his scholarship: “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.” A light bulb went off: why not send these nontraditional yet motivated students to school in supportive teams?

Thus was the Posse Foundation born. Since 1989, Bial’s organization has sent nearly 5,000 students to 48 top colleges, full tuition waived, in groups of about 10. Through regular meetings in the months leading up to move-in, leadership training, constant on-campus group support and many shoulders to lean on, they graduate at a rate of 90 percent. After four years of helping each other through, they are like ambitious, close-knit families.

Getting into a posse is no easy feat, and unlike college admissions, there’s no simple SAT-plus-GPA calculation. Instead, Posse Foundation administrators monitor students in group interviews that test for problem solving and teamwork. The non-intellectual attributes they’re checking for resemble the characteristic that Angela Duckworth, one of 2013’s MacArthur Geniuses, calls “grit.” Bial herself was a MacArthur Genius in 2007, and had developed a similar test, the Bial Dale Adaptability Index, with a $1.9 million Mellon grant earlier in her career.

   “We cannot add partners quickly enough to take all the talented students we have in our pipeline.” -Deborah Bial

The founding of Posse landed in the middle of Bial’s own higher education, two years after graduating from Brandeis University (where she gave the commencement address in 2012) and seven years before completing a master’s degree, followed by a doctorate, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“We recognized early on,” Bial says, “that SAT and ACT scores do not capture every student’s aptitude for college-level work. There are many students who could perform competitively and succeed in college, but who might be missed by such traditional measures.” With about 15,000 students competing for 660 scholarship slots this year, Posse has an acceptance rate (4.4 percent) lower than Harvard University (6.1 percent), the most selective school in America.

Not that Posse wants to be so exclusive: in a way, Bial sees it as a weakness of the foundation. “We are simply turning away too many highly qualified students,” she says. “We cannot add partners quickly enough to take all the talented students we have in our pipeline.”

Bial plans to expand—Posse hopes to open operations in a 10th city in the coming years—and has launched a new initiative for posses of veterans, currently in its first year at Vassar College, with Wesleyan University signing on for 2014. Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar, called Posse with the idea, which, like the regular program, will add diversity to the campus in addition to serving an often-overlooked population. It also receives support from the GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon Program. “Given the tremendous leadership and demonstrated resilience of our country’s servicemen and servicewomen,” Bial says, “we reasoned that the model could also serve this distinguished group in their college aspirations.”

Those who’ve graduated through Posse have done much to make Bial proud. She shares stories of just a few of the high achievers who now serve as role models to Posse scholars. “There is Shirley Collado, a student from the Bronx who had a combined math and verbal score of 800 on her SAT. She was a member of the very first Posse to attend Vanderbilt University. She graduated in four years, went on to get her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Duke University, and today she is the dean of the college at Middlebury College.”

She continues, “There is Adnan Prsic, a Bosnian refugee who immigrated to this country in 1998 to escape the war. Adnan won a Posse Scholarship, graduated with honors, got his medical degree from Harvard University, and became part of the team of doctors who performed the second full-face transplant in the United States. There is Mason Richard, a Posse alumnus and current filmmaker. Last year Mason’s short film, ‘The Seawall,’ was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival. There is Monique Nelson, a Posse alumna who today is the CEO of Uniworld, a renowned multicultural advertising agency. These are just a few of the incredible young people we are proud to call Posse alumni.”

Bial hopes to double the number of participating colleges to about 100 by 2020, at which point Posse alumni in the workforce will number over 6,000—not a bad support system for those who need an extra boost. These professionals, she says, “will be the doctors, teachers, lawyers, researchers, politicians, CEOs and leaders we need to address society’s greatest challenges and ensure our country’s future prosperity.”

The Posse Foundation helps like-minded college-bound students band together, helping them deal with the transition which results in higher graduation rates.

     ART & FUN

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