The Collective

Leadership is not about us as individuals; rather, leadership is about us in relation to others. This may seem simplistic or idealistic, but when leadership is viewed less as personal attainment or privilege and more as a component of healthy community, leaders will speak, act and respond in ways that benefit the collective, not just those in positions of authority.

When we view leadership within this context of relationship and community, we can focus on developing the leadership skills that will enrich not only our own lives but also the lives of those around us. Our Western culture, however, promotes leadership as something we should aspire to and fosters individualism and personal achievement.

It is far too easy to see each position of leadership as a stepping stone to greater levels of status and authority. Not only does this shift the focus from working for the collective good, it also creates a sense of competition between leaders as they jostle for positions and recognition.

In my experience, this is most clearly demonstrated by how people treat the leaders above them. If we work to undermine our leaders, we will only inherit followers who are conditioned to do the same. I also think we need to have the same integrity as followers that we want our leaders to demonstrate.

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Space Portals

At work today I was called down to our reception area to speak with a man who wanted to talk with our CEO. I’d already met with him last week, so he wasn’t pleased to see me again. He desperately wants to partner with our organization and invest $500 Trillion into the creation of a portal that will allow for space travel from one dimension to the next. He said that he’s already discussed this project with Trudeau, Putin and Trump (and apparently set in motion their elections 1,500 years ago) and feels passionately about including us in this opportunity. I had to firmly but politely let him know that while we appreciate the invitation, it is not possible for us to enter into this partnership with him. He seemed confused and disappointed by my unwillingness to discuss his proposal further.

The man appeared to be well-dressed and fed, so his basic needs are likely being met, but I felt sad that I couldn’t provide more support with his mental health challenges. He wasn’t aggressive or disruptive with me, but he is making some staff uncomfortable and nervous with his frequent visits to our office. Hopefully there is someone else in his life better equipped to offer assistance and a listening ear. Part of me wants to be more generous with my time, but I also know I can’t encourage him to keep coming to our office to speak with people about space portals and magical formulas to create currency.

It’s easy to say that I want to be a kind, compassionate and patient person, but some relationships and interactions with others are more complicated than following simple platitudes. Even though I’m well into my 40’s, it’s still challenging at times to know what is the right thing to say or do in certain situations. I guess I’m still a work in progress.

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Yesterday Passed

“Today is today and yesterday passed, this is certain.

Today is also tomorrow, and I left
with some cold year that passed,
that year left with me and took me with it.”—Pablo Neruda

Like many nine-year-olds, my son, K, enjoys creating things with LEGO. What makes him different, however, is his obsession with the instruction books. Although he enjoys reading the book 365 Things To Do With LEGO Bricks, he much prefers reviewing the basic instructions for LEGO sets he’s already built. He carefully reviews the steps outlined on each page before turning to the next one. If we allowed him, he would spend hours flipping through his collection of instruction books, over and over, and do this day after day. He doesn’t want to rebuild the LEGO sets, but he finds comfort in repeatedly reviewing the steps he’s already followed.

As I watched K pore over the LEGO books this evening, I thought about how I can obsess about situations and events from my past. I’m not able to go back in time and reassemble what happened, so I’m not sure what I hope to accomplish by repeatedly imagining how I could have spoken or acted differently. While some introspection is healthy (and also necessary for personal survival and growth), there comes a point in which further reflection on past experiences is no longer helpful or healthy.

I need to recognize when today is also tomorrow, so that I can embrace the freedom to create something new.

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Indomitable Spirit

My son, B, attends Tae Kwon Do classes twice a week. Participating in the martial arts provides him with a great opportunity for extra-curricular fun and fitness, but the experience is also helping him to develop self-discipline and improve his ability to focus and listen.

The school he attends focuses on six character traits: modesty, courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance and an indomitable spirit. It’s amusing to hear the youngest students try to pronounce “indomitable.” This is not a widely used word, and during the first few classes I kept thinking about Bumble, the Indomitable Snowman who appears in the 1964 stop-animation movie Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Despite what the character of Bumble implies, indomitable does not mean angry or ferocious but rather someone or something that is impossible to subdue or defeat. The martial arts program is striving to develop young people who will be unassailable and unshakable. With all of the negative influences in the world trying to corrupt and tear down our young people, it’s wonderful to have programs available such as this which exist to build confidence, self-awareness and respect for others.

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Absence

“Of all the springtimes of the world
This one is the ugliest.”—Paul Éluard

The weather has been horrendous today in Boston, and I’m not-so-patiently waiting at the airport with R for our flight home to Toronto. Our departure has been delayed four times already, but hopefully we’ll get on the plane before the night is over.

We’ve been away for three nights now, which doesn’t seem overly long, but we’re missing our boys. With our flight delay, we’ll miss seeing them before they go to sleep tonight, which will make four nights in a row without tucking them in. In the past, we’ve always looked forward to travelling, whether for work or pleasure, but now that we have K and B in our lives, we no longer enjoy going away for long periods without them. I’m in St. John’s next weekend, and then have more travel to Indianapolis, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Whitehorse, and R is going away to Uganda as well, so there will be more time away from them. The good news is that one of us will always be staying home with the boys during those trips, which makes things a bit easier.

While it’s hard for us to be away from K and B, I think they have a great time staying with their two sets of grandparents. It must be nice to be spoiled for the duration of a weekend.

This morning I ran the Boston marathon in heavy rain and winds. There was snow on the ground in Hopkinton where the race starts, so it was also a fairly cold morning to run. It was a hard day for most runners, whether elite or back-of-the-pack. In the male division, the eight elite Ethiopian runners all dropped out, and only two of the 11 Kenyans managed to finish. The finishing times for the top 10 male (which included Canada’s Reid Coolsaet) and female (which included Canada’s Krista Duchene in third) runners were much slower than usual, and I think most of the 30,000 runners would have posted slower finishing times than normal. Over 2,300 runners required medical attention, primarily due to hypothermia.

I had trouble staying warm during the race and also had to stop a few times to use a washroom. This seems to be a constant challenge for me while running in the rain (must be psychological). After running at race pace for about 12 km, I slowed down and just focused on maintaining a steady effort, finishing just under three hours. I’m hoping that by shifting my goals and using this race as a steady training run, I’ll be able to recover more quickly for my next race. When I finished, I became incredibly cold trying to get my gear from the pickup tents, so that was a bit scary. Thankfully I wasn’t one of the many runners who required medical assistance. R was spectating for a few hours in the rain, so she was also soaked and chilled to the bone. Marathon running (and spectating) is a stupid hobby.

Tomorrow morning we will see our boys and also Shadow, our puppy.

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Welcoming

R and I have enjoyed walking the streets of Boston this weekend. The neighbourhoods are rich with history and character, whether you walk on the original cobblestone road on Acorn Street, follow the freedom trail or visit Old North Church, which opened in 1723 and played a dramatic role in the American Revolution.

Although we passed by a number of beautiful and historic churches, I was particularly impressed with how a few of them chose to post public messages on the outside of their church walls. These are a few examples:

“Immigrants & Refugees: Welcome.”
“Love thy (Muslim) Neighbour as thyself.”
“The well-being of anyone is the business of everyone.”

It was encouraging to see these old churches publicly challenging bigotry and racism and encouraging people from every background to feel welcome entering their historic buildings.

This morning we went to Old South Church in Copley Square, whose history dates back to 1669. They also call themselves the church of the finishing line, as the Boston Marathon finish line is located just outside their building. The congregation held a special blessing for the marathon runners, with an additional time of remembrance to mark the fifth anniversary of the bombing attack. The entire service was geared for the runners in a meaningful and relevant way. The church made a point of making every person feel welcome and valued while also challenging us to go and do likewise.

I was touched by one of the responsive prayers:

Welcome to this sacred place:
House of prayer for many nations; home to all who come.
Welcome to this gathering place where none are turned away:
Friend and stranger, saint and sinner, survivor and griever,
Come with hope or hesitation; come with joy or yearning.
We come from many places, with many differences, to the common ground of this sacred house.
When paths cross and travellers meet, there is much to celebrate.

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Deliverance and Riches

“Run and run towards deliverance
And find and gather everything
Deliverance and riches
Run so quickly the thread breaks
With the sound a great bird makes
A flag always soared beyond”—Paul Éluard

I’m in Boston now for the marathon weekend. Everywhere I go I see runners milling about. Some look excited, others look anxious, but we’ve all come for the same event.

On Monday, we’ll cover the same 26.2-mile route from Hopkinton to Boston, but we’ll all be in our own race. Some of us are running towards something, while others are running away. May we run quickly enough to find and gather our deliverance and riches.

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Whips

When I was an undergraduate student, I spent a few years studying Classical Greek and Latin. It’s amazing how practical these courses have turned out to be in my professional life. It honestly boggles my mind that people waste their time and money on post-secondary studies such as engineering, IT and medicine, or on learning languages that are still spoken today such as French, Spanish and Mandarin. If asked to offer one piece of advice to prospective university students, I would say this: Studying dead languages is the way to go, closely followed by poetry and creative writing. You can’t go wrong with pursuing any of these academic disciplines; unless, of course, you want to have a nice place to live and adequate food to eat. Did you know that the word sarcasm comes from the Greek sarkasmós, which means to bite the flesh from one’s bones?

It’s been 20 years since I immersed myself in the worlds of Greece and Rome, but I often think of the stories I read/translated by the ancient poets and philosophers. One of these stories comes to mind often, as it provides a gentle but profound reminder to embrace freedom in my life.

I believe the story below was originally told by Herodotus, who is known both as the Father of History and the Father of Lies. I’m relying on my memory here, so let’s just say it was written by Herodotus, and not completely made up by me, and then I’ll either be a disciple of history or a disciple of lies, depending on how familiar you are with ancient Greek texts.

As Greek men were wont to do—or at least in the stories of antiquity—one day all of the landowners from a small city left their farms, livelihoods and families to travel by sea to fight with their countrymen against the enemy Persians. Gone for 10 long years, the Greek men returned home only to discover that their slaves had taken their place as the new masters of the city, having even married their wives.

Filled with rage at this discovery, the Greek men put on their armour, picked up their shields, swords and spears, and marched toward the city to reclaim their homes. When the former slaves saw the Greeks approaching, they quickly armed themselves in defence. A battle raged, but the Greek men, tired and hungry, were pushed back beyond the city gates.

Twice more the Greek men marched against the city, but each time they failed to defeat their former slaves. As they prepared to give up their fight, one among the Greeks spoke up. “Why are we fighting our former slaves man to man? When we do this, we show them that they are equals, and we will continue to struggle to overpower them. We must remind them who holds the power.”

With these words, the Greeks threw down their swords and spears and picked up their whips. Then they walked proudly toward the city.

When the former slaves saw the men approach and heard the crack of their whips, they were reminded of their past, lost their confidence and surrendered their freedom. The Greeks reclaimed their mastery over the slaves and took back ownership of the city.

I write this now as a free man, but at times I question whether I have the intelligence, social skills and motivation necessary to excel in my professional life. I also worry too much about what others think of me and whether I receive enough recognition for what I do. And sometimes I speak sarcastically and critically of others. These are all things that enslave me and interfere with a healthy and vibrant life.

However, when I focus on being true to myself, showing kindness and patience to others, and listening to close friends and family members who know me best and care for me, I am able to experience a life of freedom.

The key is to recognize the whips which continually call me back to a life of slavery.

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Origins

In Grade One, I received an assignment which required completing the following sentence: “I was most surprised …” I filled in the blanks by writing, “when my parents told me I was adopted.”

Although I classified it as a surprise, I can’t recall ever not knowing that I was adopted. While we never discussed it much as a family, this fact about my birth was never kept a secret from me.

However, my parents made a point of never telling anyone outside of our immediate family that I was adopted. In fact, I don’t think there are too many people who would even know this about me. My brother, James, was not adopted, but my parents never treated us any differently. I can remember many occasions in which people would say to my parents that I looked so much like my dad. The response from my parents would always be something like, “Thank you” or “He sure does.” But there was never a secret wink or nod from them during these encounters. I think that at the heart of it, my parents adopted me as a nine-week-old baby, told me that I was adopted as soon as I was old enough to understand, and then, for the rest of my life, I was totally and wholly theirs without the need for any type of public disclaimer or asterisk.

I have always recoiled when hearing adults introduce a child as their adopted son or daughter. This is especially true when birth children are included in the mix. “This is our daughter ___. And this is our adopted daughter ___.” If you’ve adopted someone into your family, they are now your son or daughter. Why is it necessary to clarify to the world how they’re different or separate from your other children? I suppose that if it is more obvious physically, then people will likely know that a child is adopted and might ask questions, but my discomfort lies not in whether people could/should know if a child is adopted (it doesn’t need to be kept a secret by any means) but rather with how an adopted child is generally viewed, treated and named by their new family unit.

I acknowledge that I’m a white person who was adopted as a baby into a white family. It is likely that I would view the adoption process quite differently if I was an indigenous child who had been removed from her family of origin (or even community), had joined a family through an international adoption process, or was welcomed into a home as an older child.

I know a number of other adoptees who grew up with a deep longing to know more about their birth family. I did not grow up with this desire. Except for when after-school specials about adoption would come on the TV (I could never watch those), I never much thought about my origins. That is, until I turned 34.

At 34, I became a father to my first son. K’s birth was terrifying; there were serious complications and an emergency C-section was required to keep him alive. But then the chaos ended, and I got to hold him close to my chest and to kiss his beautiful face. At that moment I realized K was the first blood relative I had ever met. He came from me.

In the days that followed, I started to think a lot about my adoption. I didn’t feel any sense of loss or pain about not knowing my birth family. My mind wasn’t focused on my needs at all. What I reflected on, and hadn’t thought of before, is how emotional it must have been for my birth mother to carry me inside of her for nine months, to go through the intense and painful process of childbirth, and then to give me up for adoption. Even if surrendering me was the best decision for her, and done without any sense of loss or regret over the years, she must occasionally wonder about me and how my life has turned out. I don’t see how you can go through pregnancy and childbirth without the experiences having a lasting impact on your life.

Without knowing whether my birth mother wanted any contact with me or not, I decided to reach out to let her know I was alive and well and to say thank you for giving me life. I connected with the appropriate government ministry in Nova Scotia and received some documentation about my birth. As I read through the material, I was completely taken aback by the story that unfolded. Although I didn’t think much about my adoption growing up, I realized then that I’d carefully constructed a personal narrative in my mind that had explained it all neatly. Now I was faced with a real person’s story with factual information and a family history. I also understood that once I reached out, I would not be able to control what, if anything, might happen next or how this could impact my life and those closest to me.

The documentation from the government included instructions on how to write to my birth mother through the ministry’s social worker without giving out any of my personal information, such as my new name and address. A month or two later, I received a second letter from the ministry to see if I needed any help writing the letter to my birth mother. After another few months, I received a third letter asking me if I wanted my file to remain active.

K turned nine a few months ago. He has a brother, B, who just turned six. I’m doing my best to raise them to be kind, compassionate and brave.

I still haven’t written to my birth mother.

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Status Anxiety

“What do you do?” When meeting someone for the first time, this is one of the first questions we usually ask. There’s a sense that once we discover what people do for a living, we will have a better idea of who they are and what value they offer to the world.

Living in a status-driven society, we also quickly determine—whether consciously or unconsciously—our station in relation to others. Are we more or less important? Who is in a position of authority? Are these people worthy of my respect and admiration?

Some of us may take this a step further and wonder—and perhaps worry—what others think of us. Do they acknowledge my importance? Do they view me as successful? Do they recognize my special skills or abilities?

It’s a sad reality that many people treat others according to how they perceive their level of status. As such, we have a vested interest in achieving excellence and power as this generally results in people treating us better.

When our happiness depends on how people perceive us (and possessing what they have), we become afflicted with what Alain de Botton refers to as “status anxiety.” In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton outlines five major causes that lead to this social disease (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, dependence) and then offers five solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, bohemianism).

De Botton argues that the constant struggle to stand out in the crowd and be different usually only leads to bitterness, shame and depression. While every person is unique, it is still necessary to find commonality with others and build community.

“So it is that belonging is the place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way,” writes Jean Vanier in Becoming Human. “It is the place we need in order to live and to act in society in justice, in truth, without seeking power, privileges and honours for our own self-glory. It is the place where we learn to be humble but also audacious and to take initiatives in working with others.”

In his opening thesis, de Botton suggests that “the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill.”

As someone still learning how to be humble, I do not wish to hunger for status or position. However, I do want to use my talents and abilities in ways that are meaningful and life-giving, not only for me but also for others. I suppose the simplest way to express this is that I want to feel useful and make a difference in the world without striving to be powerful or important.

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