Monthly Archives: April 2014

This Day is All That is Good and Fair

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on yesterdays.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

30 April 2014

One of the most challenging tasks is letting go and pressing forward. In sports, we can watch any play countless times, seeing it from a variety of angles (unless, of course, it is a Major League Baseball Game and the umpires are trying to correct a call, but that is a diatribe for another day) and evaluating it ad nauseum. How many times have we watched Phelan catch a Hail Mary pass from Flutie, or Clark outleap Walls and haul in Montana’s pass, or Bobby Orr seemingly fly through the air after scoring the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals? Those are the joyous moments for many, but for us, the once tortured New England fans, how many times have we Red Sox fans been bludgeoned with the image of the ball trickling through Bill Buckner’s legs on that fateful October evening 28 years ago, or the miserum est dicere David Tyree catch in Super Bowl XLII? These iconic images are seared in our minds, because we (can) watch and re-watch them. They become a part of our personal narrative, and more important (or more insidious) they occupy our thoughts. We analyze and dissect them, wondering, particularly for the moments that conjure misery, how it could have been different. It is healthier, I posit, to finish with each action, let go, move on.

Moving on takes energy, takes courage, take fortitude. Mr. Emerson urges us with excellent advice, but even as I read it, I am reminded of Portia’s words from the Merchant of Venice: “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.” We all know the right path; the hard, good work is following it. Or, as Portia continues, “It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.” We must be that good divine and follow not only our own instruction, but also the good instruction of Emerson. Be done with the day. You have done what you could. Yes, mistakes, blunders, and even absurdities occurred today, but it will best serve us to persevere and to press on.

Two of my favorite stories of letting go remind us how important it is to keep on pushing, keep finding new roses to nourish us:

“A rose withered. A bee however was still sucking on it because she had sucked honey from it before. Now, on the same rose, all she could suck out was bitter, poisonous juice. The bee felt the difference as it was so sweet before. She became miserable and complained and complained, why did the taste change? Why couldn’t it be just like before? Finally, one day, the bee gathered her strength and flew a bit higher. Then and there, she saw that, nearby the withered rose, there were blossoming flowers all over the place.” —–translated from Chinese by walkingbetween.com

I found that one on another WordPress blog site. This one, one I have used often in speeches, discovered me one morning, as I was preparing a speech:

Two monks were traveling together, an older monk and a younger monk.  They noticed a young woman at the edge of a stream, afraid to cross.  The older monk picked her up, carried her across the stream and put her down safely on the other side.  The younger monk was astonished, but he didn’t say anything until their journey was over.  “Why did you carry that woman across the stream?  Monks aren’t supposed to touch any member of the opposite sex.” said the younger monk.  The older monk replied “I left her at the edge of the river, are you still carrying her?”

We cannot seek to hold on to things past; we cannot carry extra weight on our journeys to new, exciting places. Travel light, face forward, and trust that the path ahead will reward you.

Winston Churchill, while leading England during one of its bleakest periods, opined, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Keep on pushing, and we must, unlike Orpheus, steady our gaze forward, refusing to look back. Finish every day, finish today, be done with it. Tomorrow is a new day; recognize how dear it is and seek not to waste a single moment of it replaying some peccadillo from today, yesterday, or any previous day. Memories are sweet and wonderful, but if remembering them causes you doubt, let them go and focus on all the good, all the opportunities, before you now. Gather your strength, fly a bit higher, see the blossoming flowers flourishing all around you.

Keeping Safe

 “Keeping Safe” by Michael C. Obel-Omia, November 2013

 A URI colleague asked me to name a teacher’s first priority.  I proffered teaching students to collaborate, think critically, or approach challenges with innovative solutions.  He rejoined, “A teacher’s first priority is to keep her students safe.  Custodial care reigns supreme.”

He’s correct: our first charge is to ensure that all our students learn in a safe, supportive, nurturing environment.  Providing an inclusive environment allows all students to reach their potential.

The recent sordid tale of the Miami Dolphins reminded me of the importance of a safe, inclusive environment.  Jonathan Martin, a behemoth of a man, stormed out of his team’s facility after a group of his teammates encouraged his sitting with them for lunch, but when he joined them, they rose as one, leaving him sitting alone, humiliated.  By all accounts, this incident was part of a series of hazing, nay, bullying incidents spurred mainly by his alleged closest friend, Richie Incognito.  Jonathan Martin didn’t feel safe and chose going AWOL to continuing in a threatening environment.

I don’t know all the pieces of this complex, perplexing puzzle, but as a veteran educator, I know bullying.  The tormenting texts and vicious voicemails Richie Incognito left for Jonathan Martin, the puerile pranks, and the daily distress led to Martin’s leaving.  In Martin’s wake, many of his teammates lamentably supported the bully. The teammates, so frightened that their horrific hazing practices may be exposed to judgment, chose to protect the aggressor rather than the victim.

In college, I helped to bring, Dr. Charles King, to campus to give students diversity training.  He forced us to understand how pervasive racism is and demanded that we seek to be inclusive.  For one exercise, he asked a group of students, including me, to form a circle and to keep out one other student.  We worked hard, pushing that other student away from our circle, and we felt good, accomplishing the stated goal.  Finally, Dr. King’s voice boomed out and admonished us for excluding someone for no good reason. Then he broke my African-American heart in twain, pointing his finger at me accusingly, “And you, who knows discrimination and marginalization, you should be ashamed of yourself.”  

Maya Angelou noted, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.”  As educators, nay, as humans, I believe that it is our responsibility to make all feel welcomed, supported, safe.

Michael C. Obel-Omia is an adjunct professor of Education at the University of Rhode Island and the Interim Head of School at the Compass School in North Kingston.  He lives in Barrington, Rhode Island with his wife and three children

Originally published by WRNI on its “This I Believe” program in December 2013

The Stonecutter

“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” Jacob August Riis

29 April 2014

Those of you who know me, know how much I love this quotation and how often I refer to it, quote it, when delivering speeches. I almost believe it is the perfect quotation, as it simply and elegantly expresses the kind of determination that we need in order to live lives of meaning: quietly, patiently, persistently pounding away at the rocks in our lives. So much of who we are and what we hear encourage our seeking instant gratification, but life concerns itself with our taking small, important, daily steps toward success. I think that it is easy for us to admire, even envy, those who live seemingly easy lives, but as Theodore Roosevelt opined, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

I shared my WordPress blog site with a friend, and she shared her site, Pancreas Interrupted, with me. Her son has been diagnosed with Type I Diabetes, and her site is filled with advice for those who struggle as she does and with words that express her anxiety and her exasperation with her hard row to hoe. Her writing, however, never slips to self-pity; rather, she uses her sharp sense of humor to share her advice, her anxiety, and her exasperation. Her most recent post pokes fun at a made up word she learned at a conference in DC: Inspiracon. The website for this made up word encourages us to learn the art of living in the present moment by using a simple technique, Activate, which will help us manage conflict and concur fear. The three principles are center, focus, flow. As easy as it is to poke fun at the technique, the concept seems sound: first, center self, then focus, then go with the flow.

So, as we seek to approach our daily work, I encourage all of us to hammer away, striking, perhaps, hundreds of time. As you do, center yourself, knowing that you have the strength and the courage to complete the task; then, focus on the work, knowing that what is right in front of you right now is the most important work that you can do; then, when the best laid plans go awry, go with the flow. Hammer away, center yourself, focus, and then go with the flow. As my former colleague used to say to wrestlers before he sent them on to the mat, “You’re ready.” With all this good advice, you’re ready for a perfect day tomorrow.

The [Person] in the Arena

21 April 2014

 “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

 I dedicate this post to a friend, who bravely stepped into the arena on Marathon Monday, competed mightily, and completed her goal: she finished her first marathon.  I was disappointed that I missed her—I watched for almost four hours in Natick—but the crush of humanity, more than 26,000 official runners, made it difficult to pick her out. I so wanted to see her, for I have such a vivid memory of her cheering me 13 years ago when I ran my first one. Her victory reminds me that it is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, of where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to all those who are actually in the arena, striving valiantly.  Congratulations, to my friend, and to all those who competed in and strove to complete the Boston Marathon: each one provided for all of us an example of commitment and excellence. 

 And it does take commitment to complete the marathon—or anything worth having.  I remember training 13 years ago, working hard both out of fear of failure and pride in taking on such a herculean task.  I feared the ridicule of those who smugly thought that I could not do it—might they be correct?—and I enjoyed the strength, courage, and resiliency it took to rise at four for a morning run; to walk out the door into the storm to run 15 miles at 10 degrees and to return with icicles on my eyelashes; to carve out time on a trip out west to run while chaperoning children from my school; to continue running as pains pinched parts of my person.  As the run grew closer, phantom pains discouraged me, but I persevered, because I made a commitment to myself, to the children of the Commonwealth who needed the money I was raising (How else could I have “qualified” for the world’s most prestigious marathon?), and to the critics who would point out how I might stumble, how I might have done better.  As so many hip hop artists “spit,” the fervor and the energy from the hate spewed from doubters actually motivates and fuels the rise of the hip hop artist: it is that questioning that provides the strength to reach for the golden ring.  Oftentimes, we need the critic to criticize, the doubter to doubt, the pessimist to perseverate, the misanthrope to misinterpret.

 Prospero, in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, watches his daughter quickly fall in love with the first man she sees, and he thinks, “But this swift business / I must uneasy make, lest too light winning / Make the prize light.”  Nothing worth having can be easily won, or the easy winning of it will make light the prize, so we should not be surprised that anything worth having will take all that we have to secure it.  And as we fight for it, we must not be discouraged by the words of the cynics, the scoffers, the doubting Thomas’, who with zetetic zeal seek to sow seeds of doubt in us.  Don’t let them win.  Step into that arena and compete.    

 “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  Let’s all, in spite of Carraway’s poignant words, continue to strive valiantly forward, continue to dare greatly, continue to disassociate ourselves from the cold, timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

 

The Light Within All of Us

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us.

We ask ourselves ‘who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? Your are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson

27 April 2014

This affecting quotation, by Marianne Williamson, has often been misattributed to Nelson Mandela, was featured in the film “Invictus,” appeared in the film “Akeela and the Bee,” and also was secularized in the movie “Coach Carter.” It’s Sunday, so I must be seeking some spiritual support, as I pen this essay. I absolutely love this quotation, and, like Mandela, I am moved by its simplicity and its poignancy, as it dares us to face the truth that it is our power, our potential, that most arrests us, not our limits, not our inadequacies. How we, simply us, can change and improve our world is what frightens us.

As counterintuitive as her words hit our ears, they actually ring true. Think of the times that we have doubted ourselves: we give up on ourselves more out of anxiety aroused by achieving than fear fostered by failing. At some point in our lives–and as the father of three middle school children, I suspect it most concretely occurs in those horrid years–we learn to believe the naysayers, the doubters, the cynics, the critics, the sinister speakers of sickly scuttlebutt, the nattering nabobs of negativity. We allow their insecurities, self-doubt, instabilities, and vulnerabilities to infect us, then weaken us, and finally define us, until we believe we are weak and doubt our potential.

Who are we to question our brilliance, our beauty, our talent? Each one of us is a child of God, and if you don’t believe in a higher being, then marvel at the fact that each one of us is more singular and more individual than a snowflake, more complicated and adroit than any machine on this earth. Hamlet, in articulating his depression, shares the beauty of our humanity much more poetically than I (even though it is written in prose): “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?”

Each one of us should be viewed and admired for our noble reason, our infinite faculties, our express and admirable actions, our beauty. Christina Aguilera also poignantly reminds us to love ourselves: “You are beautiful no matter what they say / Words can’t bring you down….oh no / You are beautiful in every single way / Yes, words can’t bring you down, oh, no / So don’t you bring me down today…”

The Quakers believe in the inner light, or, as Rufus Jones opined in 1904 in his Social Law in the Spiritual World: Studies in Human and Divine Inter-Relationship, “The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, ‘Something of God’ in the human soul.” And as Marianne Williamson notes, “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

So, clearly, I write to ask you to spend tomorrow, the best day of the week, seeking to let your light from within to shine, to give other people, consciously and unconsciously, permission to do the same. Make yourself a mirror that reflects what you want to see in the people in your lives. Smile at each person you see, extend your hand in friendship to each person you meet, welcome into your heart each person who needs you. If we can do that tomorrow, it will be easier the next day and then the next day, until it is our habit to love and inspire each person we meet. Or, as mine old friend Hamlet advises, “That monster custom, who all sense doth eat, / Of habits devil, is angel yet in this, / That to the use of actions fair and good / He likewise gives a frock or livery / That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight, / And that shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence, the next more easy; / For use almost can change the stamp of nature, / And either lodge the devil or throw him out / With wondrous potency.”

We have wondrous potency to be so much more than we think we are, and if we trust ourselves, we will face our fears, recognize our power, and achieve our goals. This wonderful journey will begin with the first step: believe in you and what you can do