About robertjahner

My work and vocation was in human services and organizational systems change. I have spent particularly the last half of my career working help organizations actually live out in service the lofty goals of their mission statements. As some point I recognized that how we make decisions has a lot to do with the health of the organization as well has how they manage their politics. Finally at the personal level I looked at my personal decisions good and bad and decided this was the work I want to do next. I hope to build a diverse forum of concerned people committed to civility and tolerance willing to wrestle with the hard work of making good decisions.

Good and Political Gangrene

Already in daily life the political conversations in the homes, streets and in the air, are positioning for advantage. More often than not I find myself deeply disturbed by the content of these anticipatory political forays. I want to chuck my equanimity and shout out: “Are you kidding me? “How do you move from the good and generous person you are to this kind of vitriol and anger?” But I don’t shout even if for no other reason than my words would be lost in the chorus of rage that characterizes the time in which we all live. Whenever I feel the rise of deep anger, the yellow caution light goes on inside and I return to the work of this webpage. Sometimes it is the whisper and not the shout that attracts the minds of people’s roving attention detectors. This webpage is not a shout or a blaring revelation. This project is more a whisper of remembrance and reminding; we are on the whole good people seeking an alternative to this escalating storm of selectively locked down minds and collapsing strategies. So what do I believe given my work on decision making should we remember if we can this next political season? 

First it is now most frequently in the political realm that we wear our worst sides and do the damage that is being done. Most people whose political behavior and beliefs conflict with my own are simply reacting to something personal that is finding expression, not in relationship where it belongs, but in politics. At the personal level or relationship level, the rage I feel against the other’s opposing views frequently shifts to a form of empathy when I find understanding. Empathy and agreement are two different things, but if you want to prevent either war on the large social scale or conflict at the interpersonal scale, empathy is where it begins. Parading out adjectives like evil and all of its related adjectives comprise the first stage of toxicity at the political level of conversation. The first thing I remember is, come what may, we operate from the individual level first, the interpersonal, second, and the political finally is third. Only starting from the individual personal level do empathy and mediation become possible, but you can’t stop at the individual level. Seeking empathy and understanding in the third political stage of relationship, prior to the developing the individual and community understanding is too often a fools errand. So stop when anger surges up and have the all important “three cups of tea” with your adversary at the level your grandparents may have called hospitality. True hospitality is an antidote to the political gangrene arising from ineffectual, groundless, angry conversations. 

Second I recommend sequence is important. Our neurology is sequence dependent for certain physically based executive functions utilized for the due diligence prior to decision. We cannot control or bypass those sequences at the neurological level. One exception is the reaction process that does bypass conscious sequences without our conscious permission in matters of life, death, or high performance. The rest is up to us, our constructed intentionality, and our decisions in this society. Your individual experience interacts with your community, but if your individual experience breaks down, while your community can support you, it can not replace your personal process. If one maintains personal health and stability, that strength can sustain you in a community crisis or conflict, but individual strength is no substitute in the longer run for strong stable community support around you. Strong and stable personal and community relationships lay the proper groundwork for third level of political conversations that can work. Absent the strong personal and community foundations, political conversations tend to sink to fear and anxiety drawn not so much from the content of the conversations but from the fundamental insecurity of participant’s personal experience. Fear and anxiety with no efficacy or resolution turn toxic in the physical human body, in society and as we can see now so clearly, in politics. In our time engaging in political conversations with strangers requires preparation or even facilitation. How much and what kind of facilitation depends of the basic quotient of personal and community health of the participants.

So the reminders of this posting for avoiding avoiding encounters that lead to or exacerbate political toxicity and gangrene are:

  1. First, prior to engagement, do your personal check on what you truly sense is good and right in this world . (Pause I);
  2. Then recall who comprises your community; what are their needs and what is the impact of your future words on them? Remember, community is more than a circle of friends, particularly if you subscribe to a religion that has instructions regarding love, kindness and respect. (Pause II)
  3. In your democracy, what are “the rules of law” structures that your government has implemented that might be effected by the outcome of this decision? (Pause III)
  4. If you are in service, how do the first three sequential pauses work or not work for you and the the person you are serving.

Avoid, long term rage, anger and bitterness to stay healthy. Good luck here comes from good practice.

Developmental Community Part IV: The Mentor Relationship

The mentor relationship is often experienced a relationship of grace and miracle. I encourage the reader to list the names of the people who were these ‘gift relationships’ of mentoring and use the inventory to stay tuned to the good things that have happened in their lives. In hard dark times this list is what else is true about your life. This Posting concludes the treatment of Developmental Community. Hopefully some part of it was helpful to readers.

The movement toward the balanced life for the individual is made possible by this third form of developmental relationship which is a composition of both the nurturance and vocational communities and yet uniquely different from both.  This is a relationship that serves as a catalyst for changes within the individual’s belief system that must occur in order to succeed personally within the fluid world of vocation.  A change in careers, jobs, or lifestyles can necessitate the assistance of the mentor relationship.  Because, in the experience of life, there is not clean line of demarcation that separates vocation from nurturance, the transitional zone is actually bridged by teachers, trainers, and mentors.  A characteristic of successful individuals seems to be their innate ability to attract mentors.  Conversely, people who exhibit the various forms of personality disorder or who have experienced devastating traumas which have distorted their path of development, often find themselves estranged and incapable of attracting this kind of relationship.  In the world of disability, often times a difficult situation is made vastly more difficult for the lack of available mentors in the immediate environment of the person with a disability.  Successful cultures and communities facilitate and encourage the crucial transitional mentor relationship.  This is the catalyst relationship that maintains the balance of the stabilizing center of nurturance and the creative vitality of vocation.  Stories in the media and studies in human services literature show a resurgent interest in the mentor relationship.   While it is obvious we are interested in the power and effectiveness of this relationship, we are not as certain as to its definition and scope.  Because this relationship is really a blended form of nurturance and vocational relationships, it tends to defy clear objective definition or become confused with one of the other developmental rings.  What follows is a narrative which attempts to focus the mentor relationship by describing both what it appears to be and also what is not.

The mentor relationship is:

1.  Bonded but conditional

2.  Time limited

3.  Choice based within system 


The mentor is a change agent.  For a human to change, changes must occur subjectively within the person’s belief system about reality.  The belief system is the non-conscious collection of assumptions about what in the experience of the world is fundamentally safe and valuable and conversely, what isn’t.  The mentor works with the mentored at the developmental level which was set in place through primarily nurturance experience, but which now must interact effectively with vocational energy and conditions.  Anytime two people relate at these deep levels of assumption, the very intimacy required establishes a bond.  So for this reason the mentorship is bonded, and still the venue of the mentor’s connection to the person’s life is the conditional vocational realm.  Therefore, unlike the nurturance relationship, these bonded relationships occur to assist a defined purposeful transition in the lives of both the mentor and mentored.  There is a mysterious sense of “synchronicity” experienced by both parties because this relationship occurs beyond the scope of conscious consideration.  However once the conditional demands of the transition are met, the relationship can end naturally with the same kind mystery as accompanied its appearance.  Another benefit of the mentoring relationship is that when concluded, it is not accompanied by a deep grief cycle as will always be the case with the termination of deep nurturance relationships.  Another way of describing this phenomenon is if the grief process is the painful route to re-identification, the mentor provides a relationship route to the same outcome of re-identification.  Once re-identification occurs, both parties move on into the next phases of their lives.   


Because vocational community is where we act out our expressions of change, it is here we encounter our potential mentors.  The church, the service club, the job site are all arenas of vocational expression where people go to express the authority of their life’s experience and encounter people who respond to them.  As said earlier, the change relationship must reach across the boundaries of the vocational realm into the nurturance realm or subjective aspect of the mentored.  The mentor, in order to interact with the nurturance level of the mentored, must invest his or her own nurturance content into the relationship.  This involves considerably more energy and risk which is why the professional human services person may mentor only a small percentage of a caseload at a given time.  This crossover experience emulates the nurturance relationship except when the time constraints of vocational community impose themselves on the relationship, unlike the nurturance relationship, the mentor relationship ends.    Like the chemical catalyst, once the change has occurred, the agent disappears.


The mentor relationship is a true paradox.  When the term “both and” is contrasted with the “either or” polarity, the mentor relationship presents itself as a good example.  Mentoring is a matter of the heart (subjective, affectionate and bonded) and yet at the same time pragmatic (purposeful in relationship to an objective external system).  The true mentor relationship is nearly impossible to engineer.  For instance for those people whose personalities or appearance repel potential mentors, efforts have been made to pay the “mentor” to compensate for the lack of natural connection.  These relationships are often successful, but in the same way that vocational relationships can be useful in training a person.  The job coach is a good example of the paid trainer who can effectively train one-on-one.  The strength of the professional vocational service providers is they can “hold” a person in the vocational system until the community overcomes the natural fears of the person with differences.  Once the “stranger anxiety” is overcome very often the community generates a true mentor who will take over the bulk of the professional’s responsibility out of a sense of bonded service and affection.  Anytime a person receives compensation for being in relationship, this becomes a vocational relationship.  This distinction should not be taken as a demeaning of the professional relationship, but rather a recognition of the limits of effectiveness.  The professional relationship is truly the prosthetic applied until “nature” re-establishes a more enduring pattern.  At the same time there is probably very few teachers, counselors, or administrators who don’t recall certain students, clients, or subordinates with whom they formed the mentor connection while concurrently serving the balance of their responsibilities.  The possibility and occurrence of the mentoring relationship is often the experience that inspires the professional and creates the energy to carry out the balance of the job.  A healthy culture will recognize and support this unique relationship as the highest order relationship of the community.

Developmental Community Part III: Vocational Community

The Vocational Relationship represents the second ring of the Developmental triad in this series of Postings. I apologize for the slightly longer Post here, but the vocational is often the least understood in terms of its relationship to both Nurturance and Mentoring. So bear with it. I think the journey is worth it.


The word “vocation” is profound in its roots and rich in implications.  Vocation refers to one’s “calling”.   In common usage it has come to be associated with work or more specifically the nature of one’s job.  Churches have further narrowed vocation’s meaning to refer specifically to those people who are called to a ministry.  In the context of Developmental Community this word is given its original breadth and scope.  Vocation refers to a component of human development that requires the movement of private personal experience into community and public expression.  Vocation is a universal energy that works through the life activity every human being.  This force moves the person’s subjectivity into objective conscious expression.  While this vocational expression most often occurs in the context of a person’s work, every time a story is told, a picture taken, an apron sewn, bread baked, guitar strummed, drum beat, car driven and onward across the vast range of human activity and expression, the energy of vocation is expressed.  Each human being, regardless of gift or the apparent lack of it, must deal with an internal requirement imprinted in their nature to express.  The forms of expression are as infinite as are the humans themselves.  If the role of the nurturance community is to support a stable positive belief system out of which a person operates, the vocational community exists to provide a manageable arena or discipline of public expression for the potent force of personal vocation.   The child begins in the context of the first family to practice expressions of unique vocation.  That practice expands into school, church and extended family.  The general developmental movement is again moving from the safe familiar of nurturance relationships ever outward to the exciting, challenging unfamiliar of vocation.  Whether the movement outward is perceived by the individual as an “exciting journey towards adventure” or a “terrifying excursion away from safety” has a great deal to do with the subjective and primarily non-conscious elements of his or her belief systems laid down in nurturance community or sometimes biology itself.  The vocational communities and relationships distinguish themselves qualitatively from the nurturance relationships.  In a sense vocation offers life its scope and range while the latter offers depth, meaning, and stability.  Those who work with people professionally must have at some level, an awareness of these distinctions or face profound frustration.  A good understanding of these two levels of relationship will allow the leader to achieve an organizational balance that is long lasting, profoundly stable, and finally surprisingly efficacious; And personal efficacy is the reason for vocational community.  

The Vocational Relationships are recognized by these central characteristics:

1.  They are unbonded conditional relationships.

2.  They are time defined commitments.

3.  They are pragmatic and rational 


A person who has reached maturity and adulthood will find him or herself moving through a number of vocational relationships at any given point in life as well as throughout life.  These are the butcher, baker, candlestick maker relationships.  These are also the classmates at school who, remembered as friendly, are not life’s sustaining friends.  These are the coworkers who may spend thirty years with you at your side fighting the good fight for the company, but upon retirement they disappear out of your life.  Remarkably for all the apparent intensity of the working relationship and given the sheer quantity of time spent together, the grief cycle upon separation is very often a shallow cut if it is felt at all.   At this point we need to address the unfortunate occurrence of the person who retires and dies within months out of a sense of loss and uselessness.  It is the hypothesis of this model that this deep sense of loss is not necessarily the loss of vocational community, but from the sudden awareness of the inadequacy of that person’s nurturance community.  That said, the vocational expression is a life long need and the sudden termination of a vocational range of expression can also disrupt and injure the individual regardless of age.

Vocational relationships are purposeful in nature.  The purpose is typically in the language shared by the relaters.  Conditionality is an ethic.  At the broad level, the language of this community defines common mission.    Within the context of mission the social contract defines the strategy of the purpose in terms of measurable goals and accountable criteria.  The strategy invariably strives to accomplish the product or outcome of the mission statement.  In vocational community, the mission is primary and people in the relationship consciously subordinate to the mission.  This may sound like large corporate culture in the sense that the baker down on the corner doesn’t typically publish a mission statement and evaluation criteria.  In fact, the successful baker and the corporate president have much in common.  If one were to sit and listen to that baker what you would eventually hear is the commitment to the baking of bread that tastes good and sells.  The amount of the sales and a steady stream of satisfied customers is the built in scale of evaluation.  When the baker sends the lazy apprentice packing, the baker is not intentionally consigning that person to alienation and trauma, but rather to another vocational pursuit.   This “portability” is the feature of vocational community and vocational relationships are the relationships that introduce creative fluidity in the workings of society that would not be possible if there were only nurturance relationships.  The bond that holds the vulnerable and the caretaker in a stable configuration is balanced by the next developmental relationship that has a flexible ethical and legal standard of behavior through which people can move and operate rationally.  The rational mind rather than the bonded heart is the primary operator. 


The language of time is sewn into the workings of vocational community.  Even the artist who apparently operates in an unstructured life, must relate to the natural boundaries of vocational time through which the artistic expression can be brought into this world for public appreciation.  At the extreme end, time is cut into 15 minute segments and in this age even key strokes for the purpose of attaching a monetary value to productive human activity.  A person’s vocational relationships often evolve around 8 hour shifts, forty or sixty hour weeks, three year grants, 30 year careers.  The nature of the time is often contained in a formal contract which is negotiated in the context of vocational relationship.  The rules of the relationship are external and understood at the outset. 


The contractual nature of this community and its relationships defines limits of the boundaries of commitment and value.  A contract contains the possibilities of the relationship in rational boundaries.  This “external language” gives identity and accountable power to the affairs of the members of this community.  The definitive nature creates portable “pieces” of enterprise and politics.  Law is the ultimate social contract and public law gives some level of predictability and order to the human community.  The contribution of the process of democracy to the evolution of social human community is that it is a system of continuous response and hopefully improvement in the realm of politics.  Vocational relationships fill the need in a person’s life for an arena of expression that is both flexible and limited.  One is never as secure in the vocational community as one would be in the true nurturance relationships.  There is a risk in vocational relationships, however the lack of a true bond can limit and contain the loss that is possible for the participants in vocational relationships.  The working assumption of the vocational is that all participants have a nurturance level of community fall back on.  The fear of risk in the vocational relationships increases dramatically for the participants who have transferred their nurturance relationship energy into this realm of pragmatism and calculating rationality.

Vocational relationships occur in subordination to an articulated system which is often described not only as product, but beliefs.  In this level of community Catholics meet other Catholics, Methodists meet Methodists, engineers meet engineers, social workers meet social workers and so forth.  The context and pretext for the contact is largely influenced by the existing system.  Vocational community is often the setting in which true often adult stage nurturance friendships are formed.  Once these relationships are formed they are nurturance level and no longer vocational.  The test of the true level of the relationship occurs when the terms of the vocational relationship are met.  When the contract is fulfilled, and the check stops, or the agenda runs out, the friends to which one still relates on a regular basis are the nurturance relationships.

The leader of an organization will run a constant analysis of the balance within the community of these two levels of relationship.  Optimal performance and growth for both the organization and the political community are premised on the balancing of the forces of these communities.  For each individual within the society who wishes to live the fulfilling life, the balancing considerations of nurturance and vocation are of equal importance.

Developmental Community Part II: Nurturance Community

In Part I of this series I talked about how if things do not follow a healthy course we can develop tragic scotomas or blinds spots to our sense of Good, which includes blindness to the experience of trust, if not faith itself. The next three parts of this series talks more about how things might look on a natural, healthy developmental path.


The relationships we are about to consider are easiest understood arrayed as a succession of developmental rings.  As with the tree, the origin all that subsequently develops in developmental community is the central ring.  That central ring will be called the Nurturance Community.  This central ring represents  for the individual, a core of nurturing and sustaining relationships that support the individual from the beginning and throughout the balance of their life.  These first and primary nurturance relationships constitute a stable foundation making it possible for the individual to initially physically survive, and subsequently thrive in the life journey.  We seem to be rediscovering what has always been known. It is on the strength of these first relationships that human children successfully move and develop out of dependence into the realm of interdependence.  The human developmental process demands every individual draw on the benefits of nurturance relationships with a circadian regularity, or fail to thrive.  The absolute and life long dependence on a specific kind of relationship shapes human culture, enterprise and behavior in every dimension of life and vocation.  The Nurturance Relationship is defined by these central characteristics:

1.  They are bonded relationships with minimal conditionality.

2.  They have opened ended commitment.

3.  They sustain out of subjective choice. 


The absolute and long-term vulnerability of the human infant places an extraordinary importance on the initial bonds he or she has with mother, father and/or the first community of caretakers.  The infant bond must be strong enough to hold the caretaker in a focus of nurturing for an extended period of time at great personal sacrifice for the caretaker.  Bond, in this model, is a separate force that works at the sufferance of both infant and caretaker.  This “life and death” nature of the infant’s need for certain levels of attention and safety is continuous for years, and in that period of time the individual caretakers will encounter conflicts between their own system of personal needs and those of the ever needy infant and young child.  The birth of the nurturance community and its intensely unique strength originates out of this universal, cultural, and biological event.  Regardless of who provides the caretaking, the network of care must be seamless or, depending on the nature of the rupture, damage up to catastrophic may be done to the child’s emerging basic patterns of belief and trust.  The effects of this damage to the primary belief system will find expression throughout the child’s future life.  For this reason the needs of the child must be met by a network of caregivers who can consciously compensate for one another’s needs and conditions.  The members of the nurturance community then must operate at deep levels of intimacy not only with the child, but with one another.  The effect for the child though is a community that will not abandon, condemn, or judge beyond the reasonable rituals of training and requirements of safety.  The health of any society’s culture and future is measured by the strength of its nurturance networks.  A successful childhood immeasurably increases the child’s capacity as an adult to enter with trust into bonded friendships, relationships, marriage, parenting, and enterprise.   The healthy child sustains a continuous central ring of nurturance throughout the productive life.  It is this community that serves as an anchoring balance to the storms and tribulations of the vocational relationships found in the next ring of relationship.  The impressive social service network of our culture devotes its huge energy and resources largely to those individuals who through accident, misfortune, biology, or neglect, have had breaks in nurturance.  


The nurturance community operates outside of time.  Time is a learned concept.  It seems to be an aspect of human consciousness created to help manage the affairs of Vocational Community.  Nurturance relationships are built around filling the need of both child and adult for regular encounters with “timelessness”.  Perhaps the word rhythm more accurately reflects the flow of nurturance relationships.  The infant expresses need and receives gratification more out an internal rhythm than “by the clock”.  Marriage vows, friendships, and certain commitments are made in nurturance communities and very frequently those vows are characterized by timeless commitment language such as; “forever”, “happily ever after,” “till death do us part”.  As the infant and elder represent the human experience either entering life from a timeless place or exiting life toward a timeless state, it seems again part of the necessary nurturance rhythm of the human is to encounter relationships which are not defined by the limitations of time.  


One of the ever-present mysteries of life is how parents love children who, to members community outside the nurturance ring, appear to be unlovable.  Why certain relatives or friends connect with a person and “stay the course of a lifetime”  goes beyond objective analysis and control.  There exists no definitive, objective criteria around which these subjective connections occur.  While affection is very often present in this level of relationship, that affection may not always be apparent to the observer.  While it is doubtful this thing called co-dependence could ever be completely absent from any relationship, in terms of determining the difference between a grossly co-dependent relationship and a nurturance relationship, the co-dependent relationship reveals itself objectively in terms of one or both parties having points of absolute dependence requiring exploitation of that relationship.  Nurturance relationships are, on balance, more supportive than exploitive.  The participants of nurturance relationships are capable of sacrifice for one another.  This unique level of relationship defies conventional wisdom and explanation.  It is the wellspring of inspiration that fuels artistic and creative expression.  The volatility and vitality of this relationship is its strength and weakness.  Simply because this relationship defies rational explanation it serves the critical need for humans to be connected to and by a “process of mystery” larger than comprehension.

A final point about nurturance relationships is they are ultimately based on choice.  Even the basic parent child relationship reaches a point where choice enters into the consideration.  Many parent/child relationships slip quietly into the vocational realm, where a parent or child may simply objectively provide support, but does not continue to be a deep nurturer.  The need to choose out the authority of one’s unique life experience can override the genetic and blood lines and this lends a kind of vitality along with unpredictability to community and relationship.

Developmental Community Part I: Good’s Scotoma

Oddly enough, one way of looking at the developmental cycle of the human is to see birth and early growth as a slow, steady separation journey of creation from the origin’s pure, sacred inarticulate unity of infancy while maintaining over the course of time a body memory of your infancy’s original state of undivided wholeness. Remembering the original state becomes evermore difficult as the life cycle tops the bell curve of separation and complexity with the individuals expression of vocation, only to see complexity recede again into the enforced simplicity of the elder state. Life, as they say, is a journey. The journey can be a good one if the potential good in your life isn’t eclipsed by a scotoma throwing shade on the original memory of trusted bond.

The term scotoma refers to a blind spot. We all share at least one common blind sport where our retinal ganglion cell axons exit the retina. Our brains helpfully fill in the scotoma effect with a constructed continuous image so we aren’t bothered with the actual gap in our visual field . This little physiological fiction accommodating the visual scotoma is just one of millions of services provided us by our 24-7 non-conscious process. Unfortunately not all scotomas can be filled in in real time. I will address here a particular example I encountered in my work and personal life. I am referring to persons, often very young, who are attachment disordered. Due to circumstance, illness and or trauma in early years, the capacity for the person to trust both other people or their personal sphere was severely impaired or actually severed in more severe cases. Developmentally they do not know or only have the faintest sense of being able to trust that other people may be good enough to care about and for them. Sadly there is no non-conscious compensating process like that of the human body’s optic nerve scotoma to allow a human child and adult to bridge to the original sense of trust. Without assistance it becomes necessary for these children and adults whose trust sense is injured by trauma to build their own unique accommodations and often the accommodation is obsessive strategy objectifying human relationship in order to control their world. This felt sense of ‘necessary objectification’ of relationship’ can be devastating. Absent of trust, true safety feels out of reach, and this form of defensive relating also prevents people from engaging in the kinds of trust relationships, mentoring and otherwise, that help an individual fill out and mature the Sense of Good.

In the first years of my career I worked along side the pioneers and professionals who assisted people who were raised in institutional care go through the difficult and frequently painful process of deinstitutionalization to reenter the mainstream of life. I begin by saying many of the people who worked as staff in the early institutions were very dedicated in their care and concern for the people with disabilities, but the concept of raising children and housing adults in the big institutions was tragically flawed. In the last half of the 20th century the term developmental disability found popular usage, and in my later career I became very much involved in public policy, funding and the administration of community re-entry services and programs. I recalled my experience in the early years in the large institutions how people with disabilities formed on their own certain kinds of relationships among themselves that took on a discernible pattern. When we emptied those institutions I wondered if we professionals had not fully understood the ad hoc community structures that the people with disabilities had formed to make life in the large institution bearable if not on occasion enjoyable. The transition to mainstream life seemed to be pitted with the pain of developmental scotomas that were beyond the comprehension of the served and the servers. Motivated by what I learned working with forms of attachment disorder, my observations in the large institutions, and finally my years in administration and leadership I developed (both for my own sake and in response to a grant request) a model I came to call Developmental Community. Over the next three posts I am going to summarize three forms of development relationship: 1) Nurturance Relationship, 2) Vocational Relationship and finally 3) Mentoring Relationship. It is my experience that these three forms of essential relationship if in proper balance can help prevent Scotomas from blinding people to what is good and healthy in life. In the next few days I will summarize and post the first of these; the all critical Nurturance Relationship. Stay tuned.

Good and the Zero Sum Game

In recent years the term “zero sum game’ tends to pop up in conversation, lectures, editorials, sermons, and seminars. The term itself was coined by mathematicians and occupies a fair size page in Wikipedia.  The approach for this posting is going to address zero sum game from the perspective of the word ‘good’.  In conversation the term zero sum is often used to encourage generosity and open heartedness in a perceived harsh and competitive world. When the term is not used in the formal sense of mathematically based game theory, it most often comes up as a generalized encouragement not to worry too much about resources because life itself is not a zero sum game.  On the other side people argue that opposing or supporting an option is wrong or misplaced because ‘this is not a zero sum game’ That life is not to be summarized as a zero sum is, in my experience, comes across as mostly true but not wholly so in direct personal experience.  We are taught to believe the spiritual resources such as goodness, kindness, generosity, grace etc. come from an infinite source of fidelity and in that sense our faith in the source of spirituality ensures we will be taken care of despite the adversities of life on earth in this age. I think in my deepest most central self I believe in the truth of this last sentence. Yet, I ask myself almost on a daily basis in my search for the nature of goodness; “What happens to that truth when you live in a culture designed around the rules of zero sum and performance?” 

We live in a broad almost smothering culture that for the most part idolizes competition.  We create formats and rule sets that frame and force competition.  Competition is argued to lead to ever higher performance and performance may occupy a higher rung on the ladder of cultural value than competition. Even those folks who are not enamored with the NFL, NCAA or NBA or Survival television offerings may still be comparing and anticipating their children’s future capacity to perform in the competition for limited slots in the commercial life, college and university. Even the humble ballet class in Everytown America tends to generate fierce competition for the lead roles in the annual Christmas Nutcracker. My impression is in a culture obsessed with high performance, the tendency is to begin to perform your life rather than live your life. Giftedness rather than being experienced as living gift, becomes dead burden in a life lived as performance. Somehow when I see the mental health costs in our nation and culture I sense somehow this zero sum game, whatever you think of it, has become a dominate liability for America.

Unemployment with no prospects along with empty bank accounts and facing eviction with family in tow is one example of the sharp edge of a society overly devoted to competition and performance. Turning on the tap and having no fresh or safe water coming out is tomorrow’s new zero sum sharp blade. In the public sector if we choose to to compete for the dwindling fresh water river resources to enhance singular interest group’s performance, mother nature’s rules will take us to school to teach a tragic lesson regarding hopeless futile battles. Even in the arts, if we set up paradigms of exclusive limited tastes, the gift of expression and vocation will be suppressed in the name of false limits and staged zero sum.

This project is designed to take you home within yourself to where you actually live. The purpose of pausing is for you to experience the first moments of consideration as you choose the option. Your gift, whatever that gift is, resides in your intuition’s dance with your rational mind. In the dance between intuition and the work of rationality lies the possibility of living your good gifts rather than submitting them for acceptance on the exclusive alter of competition and performance. Competition and high performance are not in themselves negative pursuits and in fact can focus as well as improve energy and skill, but when they invade your capacity to live your gifts and instead strap the sum of your life to performance you are I believe in grave trouble. The “Good” this project called The Good Decision is promoting cannot be summed up in a single definition, but rather is the collective experience of living the good attributes with fidelity. The Pause for recalling and remembering your Sense of Good I suggest is building your insulation from the false zero sums of life. 

Good, Solitude, Reaction and Response

As I follow the events of the day I find it harder to hold on to a healthy relationship between myself and the steady flow of conflicted and conflicting news.  If I am not careful I find myself reacting to all the published tragedy, sadness, callousness, and primitive aggressions with life draining despair.  So far I have been able to combat that despair  by consciously doing what I can to transform the process of reaction to the hard truth of our times into positive response and relationship.  What does the transformation of reactive energy to responding energy provide me?  I would have to say hope and the energy to hope which in turn portends feasible actions to restore my balance.

Solitude is a qualitatively different state than being alone.  Being alone is having no other person around you or supporting you.  Solitude implies being alone, but more centrally it means being present first to yourself directly rather than through a connection with other people. One can practice solitude in a crowd. I sometimes am concerned that we have built society plagued with loneliness not for the lack of other people but rather an aversion or fear of connecting directly in solitude with our own self and soul. Being present to our own existence is a pre-cursor to presence to others.  Our consciousness of self is a composition of mind/body suspended over, and drawing from, our vast mostly unordered sea-of-subjectivity.  Some people call that subjective state ‘soul’.  The primary solo relationship we have in our experience of life is the relationship of our own minds with our souls. Whenever consciousness is involved we are in relationship with first that part of our non-conscious self tasked with the job of building the conscious experience.  Only with the emergence of consciousness does the world and its people enter our experience. Reaction by definition needs to bypass self-consciousness to execute from muscle and body memory. Reaction is life-saving in war as well as beautiful in sport and art.  However reaction by definition needs to occur before the body can turn the lights on for the work of the world and relationship. On the brink of consciousness the inability to consciously pause even briefly to take in the experience of the presence of your own mystery is a symptom of personal work needing to be done.

I have no illusions this project called The Good Decision is going to turn a corner for our wounded planet or even reach many people but this discipline is how I transform reaction and despair into responsive relationship and hope. I share these postings in the ‘hope’ that maybe a few other people will find some little insight and equanimity from these reflections. This is a solo discipline of conscious presence to self that for me transforms potential bitterness into the more productive micro actions of relationship building.  Unless twins, we are born in solitude and will die eventually in a similar state.  But at the moment of life’s great and radical transitions if we are in relationship with first our own souls, and then critically a nurturance community, the skills of solitude/presence will dissipate the fears of loneliness.  I hope you treat the Pauses of this practice not as narcissism or self absorption but rather skill building in the work of the personal soul connection and community building.  

Good and Solitude

During the Holidays I found myself reading “The Art of Solitude” written by Stephen Batchelor.  I could call myself a writer in that over the years writing these posts,  papers, documents, policies etc. not only turns out to be how I maintain my mental health but also how I feel I can best contribute. But writing is a solitary experience at the core so as I faced the challenges of the hyper-social rituals of the holidays the book’s title strongly appealed to me.  

In the context of The Good Decision,  as well as in science, the decision initiates from a place of solitude in us.  The Good Decision is a discipline designed to pull one out of the solitary experience into an expanding ring of social considerations.  For introverts the decision counters the tendency toward  the narcissism that tells one a decision is only about oneself.   Every decision, large or small, has social consequences and impacts the community around us.  For extroverts, The Good Decision discipline serves as a braking device allowing the time for your neurology to shift you from reaction to considered response.  For both the introvert and extrovert, the discipline requires frank and honest time with oneself prior to the moment of truth, choice and action. In the four Pauses, which ask for snatches of solitude, the human body system can regulate itself, allowing us to sustain a state we like these days to call mental health.

Over this past week while I followed the congressional search for house leadership I felt my heart sinking to a new year’s low.  I needed time to understand how disheartening the whole sad, banal battle was and why I was having trouble with this particular event, particularly after the last couple years of extreme actions that have challenged our democracy.  The cause of my distress last week I believe is that I caught a whiff of future damage in following the disingenuous  exchanges from people who will make decisions for the next two years in our nation’s capital.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about the ‘banality of evil’ as this deep disease of the soul that does not manifest always in large and extravagant acts of destruction but perhaps more frequently from small pathetic acts of sterile, self serving  ideology conducted at the nexus of power delivering great disproportionate harm to segments of humanity.  People can perform evil acts without the intention of being evil. Their damage occurs as a result of being self serving without imagination or capacity to enter other peoples experience. Our dance with evil begins when the Sense of Good we were born with as children and must preserve and nurture in meditative or prayerful solitude as adults becomes  separated to the point of alienation from the abstractions of our adult minds.  At the point of alienation, good no longer has human scale and that “good”  coming from the alienated mind becomes non-intentionally cruel.  The sad demonstrations of last week were not the cause of my disheartened state, but rather It was what the actions portended for our country over the next two years that weighed on me.

So I guess I will continue to promote this small project called The Good Decision. I found in reading Mr. Batchelor’s book that in solitude we encounter the disturbing presence of none other than ourselves who I believe (my small act of faith) is calling us back to goodness from the recesses of our memory. We need master the first fear of our own solitary memories before we can effectively counter the damage of those who seem to forgotten all together.

Good gratitude and the season we are in

Decembers holidays are often an emotional challenge for me. As I move on in life the rituals are beginning to eclipse the presents and parties, but still a memory resides in me that plays the full spectrum of joy from seasons past. But what could I still need materially as a gift as in present? If you have been following this website you will know that I refer to ‘good’ as a word describing a state of body and mind that is coherently positive.  The phrase fragment I am referring to is: “Sense of Good”.  The challenge is to bring ‘good’ out of the mostly cognitive universe, or ‘head’, into a more physical experience with identifying language capable linking joy’ to a specific Sense of Good. In talking about gratitude I see the same challenge.  Good and gratitude in my universe are two words joined at the hip. For me true gratitude floats good into the real world we live in.

I believe the acknowledgement and expression of gratitude is an active extension of the Sense of Good.  Gratitude can only demonstrate its power in one’s life when it is an expression that anchors the specific Sense of Good more concretely to your community and physical environment. In addition the recipient of expressed gratitude can be any person, place, or thing, but at its center the  expressing of gratitude involves an assumption there exists an actual recipient of your gratitude.  In a workshop on gratitude people would occasionally approach and say in a slightly miffed mood “I am living a hard life’, or ‘my parent(s) were far worse than useless. Am I  supposed to be grateful for that or simply ignore reality”? The answer of course was no. Your well being can never be truly accomplished through ignorance.  A larger question offered by instructors in trauma resilience training for this plaintiff question is: “so what else is true in your life right now?”.  The search for real gratitude must spread itself into your community, history or place and that can only happen if you release the tether of grievance holding you in place long enough to conduct the search. True gratitude to be gratitude must be an organic expression and experience. I am suggesting you can’t exclusively pick that for which you are grateful from an external list, but rather the starting point for the search for gratitude is your sense of what has been good in your life. If your parents or family or community missed the mark or worse, you need to dive deeper and swim wider to find the people, places and things that held and supported you. Set aside the assumptions of the gratitude lists and reframe your life story around the positive encounters that resulted in you actually asking the question: “for what am I grateful”. In this season try opening the gifts that have remained shrouded in a gift wrap. These are the gifts you have seen but neglected, not understood and even feared. Being anchored in a healthy sum of gratitude is what this season is very much about. 

Happy Holidays

Good and the pesky binary

While taking a walk with my primary advisor I was pondering out loud the difficulty of talking about ‘good’ as in the Sense of Good.  People often respond to discussions of the word ‘good’ and its content  either as a linguistic pastime or a sad slide into the Good/Bad Binary.  My advisor reminded me that in the use of the term ‘good’ I was inviting trouble and misunderstanding.  I responded somewhat defensively that I am in the business of rehabilitating abused words whose utility has been lost to misuse; words such as good, authority, judgement etc.  I argue we  need these words in their true meaning to conduct the business of daily life and democracy.  If we don’t have this this critical  vocabulary in accurate usage, the effect is like eliminating the ribcage in the human body.  Minus those critical bones of protection and shaping, vulnerability shifts rapidly to fatality.

I have observed a passionate battle that has risen over cruel and harsh binaries. I think out of that battle the conflation of ‘both/and’ was born.  Whenever I see words newly joined by a forward slash I am inclined to think the puzzle that the forward slashed term represents is unresolved.  The forward slash seems to be a provisional devise in the english language that points to something beyond the our current capacity to articulate  The language for the unarticulated conundrum most likely already exists in our rich store of language and words, but when you see the forward slash, the hunt for the language of coherence seems to have been suspended.  Binary tends to represent choosing one thing over another.  Both/and is often represented as an alternative to the either/or binary. Let’s now look at the decision process and execution that we seem to share across the board.

In my experience either/or is the open, curious, vulnerable state of subjectivity we all share as ‘nonconsciousness’. The brain needs this open state to operate in weighing choice and consequence. A person can decide not to decide thus delaying the moment of ‘either/or’ by extending the ‘both/and state’.  We sometimes refer to this state of suspension as ‘suspended judgement’.  The problem is we never really suspend judgement because the brains most primitive functions are so biased toward reaction and action.  The newer executive function part of the brain, in order to take into account new complexities, inevitable and everywhere for everyone these days must push back the natural urgency to decide and release the deeply satisfying energy of focused action. That action of not acting is neurological work.  Pausing, contemplating, meditating, praying and thinking all take physical energy. The Pause suspends not so much the work of critical mind as it creates a resistance to the rush to binary judgements. The Four Pauses represent a succinct summary of this model’s four lenses through which one’s process of decision needs to pass before the commitment to a binary. 

Hannah Arendt in her writings regarding the struggles of stateless persons referred to the administration of human affairs as sailing perilously close to evil. As a person who spent a lifetime administering human services I was initially shocked but came to appreciate her comment. We all make hundreds of binary decisions everyday. Maybe we brush our teeth and maybe not. Even at the most mundane level that decision has consequences and feedback. Every decision made creates a feedback loop. The feedback loop and consequences within that loop comprise the birthing chamber of morality. The spiritual equivalent of feedback is witnessing. The consideration of consequence creates the need for the next decision. The Good Decision takes into account the reality of human imperfection and aims simply to point the trajectory of the decision’s binaries toward the illusive, moving realities of truth and goodness.