It’s Sunday. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King day and love & forgiveness are on my mind. Why this year, you might wonder? I, like many in my generation, was shaped by the life of our young, hopeful President John F. Kennedy, and by Rev. Martin Luther King, spokesperson for our cultural consciousness. When they were killed the web of trust and security bubbling over our post WWI cohort of young people exploded.
I drew these portraits of these men in the 1970s when I was working with Coro training young people for public affairs and they live on my studio wall over my books on leadership. Their hope sparked mine. The glittering name is a card from an early associate who believed in me as a carrier or this fire. I work to remember these messages from the edges of my consciousness. Today I’m the President of a successful consulting company, back on the board of Coro, and supporting many organizations that are reeling under the economic turmoil of our times. It’s my turn to serve.
In late February 15 chairs of these new advisory councils and 15 conveners will gather at the Fetzer Retreat Center in Kalamazoo and prepare for a two year process. They will meet four times with their councils, and have an additional three meetings with each other, prior to a global gathering in Assisi in September of 2012. I will be co-facilitating the kickoff meeting with Lonne Hartfield, an experienced expert in art & religion from Chicago. The designer of this kickoff experience, and my main partner to date, is Patricia Novick, an unusually creative, community oriented minister and organizer, also from Chicago. She saw me work back in the 1970s and has always remembered the quality of presence and listening that she felt in that event. She wanted that kind of approach to the Table of Chairs meeting in February and introduced me to the new president of Fetzer, Larry Sullivan, and his staff at Fetzer.
So I have been immersed in beginning to understand this Fetzer mission about love & forgiveness, and deeply engaged in imagining what living our these values actually will mean, for me, and for all the new people being invited to help with the Fetzer mission.
Like many words in English, “Love” and “forgiveness” are two words that carry a tremendous weight of multiple interpretations and associations. And like seeds, when carried as a question rather than an answer, begin resonating along a very wide spectrum of phenomena. This post is a beginning inquiry.
Two days ago I was having breakfast with my life partner of 43 years, Susan Herron, a published poet and inspiring poet teacher in the schools. She reads the New York Times in the morning, being an East coast girl school at Brown, UVA and Radcliffe. I read the SF Chronicle, having been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and wanting to check the news against what I know from my local sources. Together we get the big picture.
Susan loves (and hates) David Brooks, the op ed columnist for the NY Times. He’s very articulate, and fresh in his opinions. On Friday, January 14, he wrote about Obama’s speech in Tucson reflecting on the shootings there of a congresswoman, judge, and others. Brooks titled his piece “Tree of Failure.” He was in inquiry about what has happened to civility, and will this speech make any difference in that regard, as well received as it has been.
“Every sensible person in public life…feels redeemed by others,” he wrote. “You may write a mediocre column or make a mediocre speech or propose a mediocre piece of legislation, but others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward….as a result, every sensible person feels a sense of gratitude for this process.”
Brooks could have been writing about my work as an organization consultant and process designer. He was writing about institutionalize public life. “So this is where cilivity comes from —“ he continues. “From a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process.”
He goes on to explore how we have moved from a culture that reminds people of their limitations to one that encourages people to think highly of themselves, and forget their sense of sinfulness, giving rise to narcissism, like mindedness and true belief.
Quite by coincidence I picked up Edwin Hutchin’s book Cognition in the Wild (1995) yesterday, preparing in the back of my mind for writing a second book in a visual series for Wiley & Sons. Hutchin’s did the bulk of this research for a PhD. And then five years under a MacArthur Foundation grant. He was exploring the extent to which our knowledge is socially embedded, in contrast with the reigning idea that knowledge resides in peoples’ individual consciousness. He studied navigation teams on large ships to gain insight. I haven’t fully absorbed all his ideas, but they ring deeply true in my experience. He concludes that far more than we suspect is encoded in our social “dance” and not in individuated concepts.
I received a confirmation when I picked up the latest New Yorker Magazine and found another long article by David Brooks called “Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.” (Jan.17 New Yorker). Neither Susan or I knew Brooks was writing in this area, but it makes sense as a political analyst. Without citing Hutchin’s, he basically concurs with the idea that much more than we know if embedded in our socialization process and the cues and norms we accept in interacting with others.
What does love and forgiveness mean, then, in our collective lives?
Brooks helped me out citing a famous passage by Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the theologians I remember from my college years. “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;” Niebuhr writes. “ therefore, we must be saved by hope…Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
I remember Adam Kahane last year talking at Global Business Network about his new book, Power & Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change.” He said his inspiration was a quote by Martin Luther King, who said that “"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."
I can’t help but wondering if forgiveness and power are linked, and that Brooks, Kahane, and King are pointing in the same direction. Perhaps what keeps us from the civility and love that we all innately wish to express is our denial of the abuses of power, against those of other colors and creeds, against those who stand in our way, against the tiny parts of life we simply step on without noticing. Perhaps forgiveness must begin with loving ourselves and accepting our power AND our limitations, and forgiving those who intentionally or unintentionally abuse us. Maybe the reason Fetzer has linked love and forgiveness is because they are only in the realm of words different things.
Tomorrow Patricia Novick is giving several speeches around Chicago about Martin Luther King. He was her mentor as a young staff member of the Northern offices of MLK. I was a reporter in Chicago at the same time writing stories about the efforts of community organizations fighting red lining in black neighborhoods. We didn’t know each other then, but are still touched by the example of one life burning bright with the spirit of love & forgiveness. Now it’s our turn to carry the flag of civility. It’s our turn to support love and forgiveness expanding as a social norm in our times.