Saturday, February 26, 2011


            Shakespeare’s play Hamlet tells the story of a son’s struggle with a request from the ghost of his father to avenge his death by killing his murderer. The disgruntled spirit reveals that the murderer is Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius who has since married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and assumed the role of the King. When the gravity of the request sinks in, Hamlet finds himself contemplating suicide and asks, “To be or not to be: that is the question . . .?”[2] The issue Hamlet faces is rooted in the wise advice given earlier in the play by Polonius to his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”[3]
            As Hamlet struggles with understanding who he is to be, he exclaims, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! . . .in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”[4]  In this oratory, Hamlet points out the downfall of many of us, the mistaken belief that humanity is the pinnacle of creation. Hamlet catches himself and asks another question, “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” In this moment, he seems to realize that he is the same stuff of the rest of the cosmos, simple stardust. As the story unfolds, Hamlet forgets this awareness and returns once more to a pursuit of vengeance passed on to him from the dysfunctional ghost of his father. By the end of the play, all of the major characters are dead. Their quest for control via dominance, greed, lust, or revenge results in the typical ending of any game of hierarchical pursuit.
            Dealing with the drama of the death of a father at the hands of an uncle is not something many of us face, but conjured spirits visit us regularly with their temptations. Mary Oliver speaks of these temptations in her poem “The Journey” where she writes, “the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice. . . . ‘Mend my life’ each voice cried.”[5] When we fall into the trap of living our lives to satisfy someone else, we in essence commit our own spiritual suicide by veering from our truth. The voices of distraction creep in many times, often so subtle that we may not be sure we really hear them, or cannot tell from where they come, or perhaps prefer to deny that they exist. Beginning to understand who we are requires acknowledgement of the source of the voices.  Then we can mend our own lives.
            As a child, I used to spend time in a small patch of woods behind the house where I grew up. Those woods were a place where I felt connected; the sound of the poplar leaves vibrating with the wind, the sound of a great horned owl hooting through the trees, or a chickadee calling out in a soft “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call—these were the voices of clarity. Somewhere along the way, I stopped walking into those woods and began a quest for an easy fix to the troubles in my life. I took many wrong paths, but I learned that there is more to life than simply taking the easy way. Eventually the woods from my childhood were cut down, paved over, and a shopping complex was built in their place. When I go back to my hometown, it seems that a piece of me was paved over along with the other creatures that inhabited that patch of woods. This is the piece that I need to reclaim if I want to achieve my own sense of being.
            Later in life I found myself in a career as an environmental engineer, a job that was essentially about cleaning up the messes of humanity. The patch of pavement that was my old neighborhood was a small precursor of the devastation that continues to occur throughout the larger world. This devastation includes the likes of global warming, extinction of species, contamination of ground and surface waters, pollution of the air, and urban sprawl. Our lifestyle and its side effects create endless “opportunities” for environmental engineers. Like the Rolling Stones song, my work was a place where “I [couldn’t] get no satisfaction,”[6] for no matter how hard I tried, there was always more seemingly meaningless work to be done. Looking at the world as an endless source of resources and a bottomless sink for dumping our wastes resulted in my calling being warped into one that was mostly about enabling our communities to continue their habit of using the natural world as one more fix for the lack of meaning in our lives.
The dysfunctional spirituality that pervades the world distracted the engineers who paved over my old sanctuary in the woods. This voice continues to tell us that humanity is indeed the pinnacle of creation. Thomas Berry points out the roots of this view that include: belief in “a transcendent, personal, monotheistic creative deity”; belief that “the natural world is material, we are spiritual”; a focus on “redemption” which tells us “we are not for this world”; and the idea that “with technological invention, humans are able to surpass the natural limits.”[7] These beliefs allow us to separate ourselves from the rest of creation, and continue the quest for what Berry calls “WonderWorld.” We can reach this place by finding the right prophet, product, pill, or practice. This obsession with finding the next fix digs us deeper and deeper into a world that is becoming more and more toxic and uninhabitable. Our competition to control the limited resources remaining places us at odds not only with the natural world, but also with our fellow human beings. Wars, terrorism, poverty, disease, addictions, and crime—these are the consequences that we face when we play our own games of hierarchical pursuit.
So what is the way out of “WonderWorld,” back to a place where we can coexist with all the creatures? Mary Oliver tells us “little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.”[8] Robert Greenleaf described such a cloud-burning experience he had while looking through the 100-inch mirror of a telescope at a great nebula in 1923. “What a sight! I shook with awe and wonder at the majesty of all creation. This primitive unstructured feeling, the powerful sense of awe and wonder, is to me the source of religious feeling at its greatest depth.”[9] Perhaps this cloud of cosmic dust, this birthplace of stars pointed Greenleaf towards his philosophy of servant leadership.
            Greenleaf revisited that awe forty-three years later in the essay he wrote for the Alcoholics Anonymous publication The Grapevine.  The intended audience of the essay was quite familiar with a lifestyle focused on fixes that kept them from finding themselves. Greenleaf’s essay addressed the universal question "Who am I?” as follows:
There is another ‘me’: a timeless, unchanging level of consciousness that is at one with the cosmos; a level at which all is one, where there is no uniqueness. It is that aspect of me that stands in awe and wonder before the mystery and the majesty of all creation . . . .”[10]
Greenleaf understood the role that worldviews play in our lives. In his essay titled “The Institution as Servant” Greenleaf wrote, “Conscious religious concern is a part of the gear of civilization—a means to heal humanity’s alienation, which our ‘civilized’ state has brought about. The word religion, at its root, means ‘to rebind,’ to rebind humans to the cosmos.” [11]
            When I struggle with hearing my own voice, I have found that I can revisit the natural world to find that sense of oneness. One summer evening while I struggled with returning to work as an environmental engineer, I walked down to the park a few blocks from my house. I sat by a storm water pond on an overturned tree that had recently been felled by a beaver who took up residence in the pond. Looking out over the water, I was startled by a loud slap and then the beaver revealed itself as it swam in circles in front of me. Eventually the beaver moved on and I sat listening to the echoes from the slap of that engineer of the natural world. That voice reminded me that if I were to be true to myself, I would need to find a way to coexist with the natural world in the same way the beaver did. This might mean that work as an engineer could be a way to help humanity to harmonize with the natural world. The challenge of how to do this remained, but there was a moment of connection as the insects buzzed, the ducks whistled, and darkness settled over the land; and then the first star of the evening revealed itself.
            There is a revelation that occurs when I spend time in the natural world—that I too am stardust. Finding this awareness can be difficult, and once found it is easy to lose it behind one more patch of pavement. However, the time I spend in these natural places are times of healing. It is that healing that will be needed for me to continue to see the stars, to experience that awe that Greenleaf talked about. That awe allows awareness that the universal “quintessence of dust” that makes up the cosmos is our common bond-our authentic being.

[1] The essay “Quintessence” was included in Viterbo University’s Monograph Series Volume 1, Becoming Authentic: The Search for Wholeness and Calling as a Servant-Leader, ed. Trevor Hall (South Bend, IN: Cloverdale Books, 2007).  An excerpt from the essay was also included in the Faith at Work Magazine, Fall 2007.  

[2]  William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ed. Jeremy Hylton, (Boston: MIT Univ., n.d.), Act 3, Scene 1; available at, Internet; accessed May 18, 2008.

[3] Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 3.

[4] Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 2.

[5] Mary Oliver, “The Journey”, New and Selected Poems, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) 114-115.
[6] Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction,” Out of Our Heads, ABKCO, 1965.

[7] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, ed. Evelyn Tucker (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 25-28.

[8] Oliver, 114.

[9] Don M. Frick, Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2004), 61.

[10] Robert K. Greenleaf, “Choose the Nobler Belief,” The Grapevine, Oct. 1966.

[11] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 2002), 93.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Seekers Anonymous

The problems we face in the world today are often related to our addictions – addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, codependency, video games, violence, work, oil and other cheap energy sources, and consumption to name a few.  With so many of us in one way or another suffering from these addictions, it is no wonder that we inflict the damages we do on our world and our fellow human beings.  Often times these addictive behaviors can actually be encouraged or taken advantage of by the dysfunctional organizations that make up our society.  These organizations include our families, schools, religions, governments, places of work, or corporations.

If we wish to change our behaviors and improve our relationship to the rest of the world, we need to face our individual addictions and challenge our organizations to change.  One suggested method of doing this was outlined in Robert Greenleaf’s essay “On Being a Seeker in the Late Twentieth Century” which was included in the book SEEKER AND SERVANT.  Greenleaf proposed the formation of an organization called "Seekers Anonymous" that would be modeled on the group Alcoholics Anonymous.  He suggested, “For those who participate, healing, in the sense of being made whole, will come from deep involvement with creative work on the structural flaws in our society, work that has both meliorative and society building consequences”.

The organization would be "religious in the root meaning of the word, re ligio, to rebind: to bridge the separation between persons and the cosmos, to heal the widespread alienation, and to reestablish men and women in the role of servants — healers of society."  And he asked this question, “Are we adequately reinforcing one another as seekers in order to build, in each of us, the required competence, clarity, and strength to serve?”

If we hope to implement something like what Greenleaf proposed, we will need to follow the same universal principles contained in the Alcoholic Anonymous Twelve Steps. 

A possible Seekers Anonymous version of these steps might include the following:

1. Admit that our current lifestyles are not working and our powerlessness over our current lifestyle.

2. Believe there is a better way to do things, and trust this better way can be found and restore us to sanity.

3.  Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to this better way, however we understand it.

4. Conduct a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admit to ourselves and another human being the nature of our problems.

6. Become ready to accept that our old troublesome behaviors and ways of life can be replaced with better ones, and begin looking for what these better options might be.

7. Humbly request that our problematic behaviors and lifestyles be changed.  

8. Make a list of others we have harmed and become willing to make amends.

9. Make direct amends wherever possible; begin implementing changes in our lives.

10. Continue to take personal inventory, and admit and grow from our mistakes.

11. Practice some form of meditation, seeking to find a better way, and the power to carry it out.

12.  Having a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, carry the message to others, and practice these principles in all our affairs.  

For another take on the concept of Seekers Anonymous download and read Larry Spears and Richard Leider’s essay on the topic here

I have also posted another blog about the 12 Traditions which could be some guiding principles for operating Seekers Anonymous groups here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Absurd

A different form of leadership from what dominates our world today will be needed to guide us into a sustainable future.  In my latest posts I have been referring to Robert Greenleaf’s   servant leadership, which is a prime example of what this leadership will need to encompass.  I have included several quotes from his seminal essay on the topic “The Servant As Leader”.  
Reading the essay is what convinced me of the need for servant-leaders to guide us. Delving further into the lives and works of servant-leaders who Greenleaf quotes in the essay has helped me to flesh-out Greenleaf’s ideas on the servant-leader.  A few names from this long list includes the likes of writer Herman Hess, Saint Francis, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and poet Robert Frost.

One interesting servant-leader from this list of influencers is the author/philosopher Albert Camus.    According to Greenleaf “Albert Camus stands apart from the other great artists of his time, in my view, and deserves the title of prophet because of his unrelenting demand that each of us confront the exacting terms of our own existence, and, like Sisyphus, accept our rock and find our happiness in dealing with it.”  

What intrigues me about Camus is his writing that delves into the philosophy of absurdism.     Some quotes from his book THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS that help define the philosophy follow. 

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

Living, naturally, is never easy.  You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit.  Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.  

(…), in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.  His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.  This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.  All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.

One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth – yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism.  But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has not meaning?  Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide – this is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest.

All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.  Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door.  So it is with absurdity.   

Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time.  But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.  “Begins” – this is important.  Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness.  It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows.  What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening.  At the end of the awakening come, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.   

As I look around at the absurdity that fills our world today, I find myself asking the question why.  Until we start to ask that question and then begin our search for the answer, we cannot awaken.  It seems though that the world is starting to awaken and a search for a new way is beginning.  Greenleaf’s message on the servant-leader is a key to finding the answers we seek and his prophet Camus can guide us through the absurdity that fills our world.