At today’s Morning Reading, Associate Head of School Nate Snow challenged us with the question: What are you FOR? In a world where we are usually defined by what we are against, Nate encouraged us to rethink ourselves and how we view our connection to the world. Below are his remarks.
I begin with a few questions.
What are you FOR? No Seriously, what are you FOR? Is this something you’ve really thought about?
Are you known for what you are FOR or are you more commonly defined by what you are AGAINST or what you don’t like? Are the decisions you make, both large and small every day, in alignment with what you are FOR or what you believe in?
These are questions that have been rattling around in my brain a lot over the last year. Certainly these questions were laid bare when I woke up on the day after the election and realized that all I really knew for sure in that moment was what I myself believed in.
Something that I actually heard way back on Field Course this fall really stuck with me on this topic. I do suppose that’s the way that learning is supposed to work, being out in the world talking to people about their experiences helped to create a new sense of these ideas in my own head. Our Field Course group was meeting with Tom Bradbury, the longtime director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. He relayed a story about the early days of his organization as they were figuring out who they were and what they wanted to do and be. Back in the late 70s, a development was proposed in town that members of the Trust (there were only a couple back then) did not think was a good idea and the Conservation Trust, such as they were at that time, decided to oppose this development. They fought it at every turn, using every available tactic (lawyers, leaflets, procedural delays, letters in the local paper) to try and prevent this development from happening. In the end, in thinking back, I don’t think Tom even told us what the result of this protracted fight was. I don’t remember who won or lost. What I do remember is Tom talking about the negative fallout for his new and small conservation organization. It was a costly campaign that drained what meager finances they had managed to acquire. It was a divisive campaign and the Trust lost supporters, benefactors and a broad measure of community support. It was also an emotionally exhausting campaign for those involved and the organization lost a lot of positive momentum. “It was at that exact moment,” Tom told our group, “that I decided, from that moment on, this organization was going to define itself by what we are FOR, rather than what we are AGAINST.” We are choosing to define ourselves entirely by what we are FOR (that’s a powerful message for an organization) “If we feel strongly enough that a piece of land is worth protecting,” he continued, “then we’ll go out and raise the money and do the hard work to protect that land”. “If we believe in it, then it is our responsibility to act on it positively within the mission of this organization.”
In the nearly 40 years since, that promise has remained true with this now robust organization thriving as one of the most successful land trusts in the state, protecting innumerable parcels of important coastal land and serving as a nationally recognized model of community conservation. While focused early in their existence on, as Tom says, “protecting the land from the people”, now their mission focuses on “using the land they protect for the benefit of the people and the community”. What an amazingly simple, but deeply profound twist on how to approach this work. Noteworthy in this is that it is also incredibly financially successful, a magnet for community support and truly life affirming for those who are a part of it. Why isn’t this more common, I thought? Why do we, as individuals, groups and organizations so much more consistently focus on what we are against, pushing back against others, not listening or engaging, creating a divisive culture of us and them?
This notion of consciously focusing on what we are FOR is one that resonates deeply with me. Why is so much of our individual and collective existence focused on exactly the opposite? Why do I feel split too often that my own actions do not align with what I am FOR? Far too often, we choose (knowingly or not) to define ourselves by what (or who) we are against, what (or who) we don’t like, or simply in reaction to OTHER PEOPLE’S statements, values or beliefs, rather than our own. Is this easier? More comfortable? Learned behavior?
One need only look at this year’s political campaign process for a tangible example of this at work. How often did you see an ad for any candidate for any position that focused primarily on what they were FOR? Not very often. In just the final 5 days of the presidential campaign, nearly $110 million dollars was spent on television advertising. Of nearly 70,000 ads surveyed, according to a CNN analysis, 92% of them were identified as negative and focused on the “other” candidate. This trickled down to virtually every congressional race and down to even the local level. Politics is clearly an easy target for this, but it is by no means an outlier in this, and sadly may be a leader. Take a look at professional sports. Fans still fervently support their teams, but these days are just as likely to define themselves by who they are against. The amount of booing and yelling at opposing players is monumental these days, in virtually every stadium and arena across the country – regardless of city or sport.
Before the Montreal Canadiens traded star defenseman PK Subban this summer, he spent every minute of every away game against the archrival Boston Bruins being booed loudly every single time he touched the puck. And in a nod to turnabout, every time the Bruins play in Montreal, the exact same thing happens to Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. A first pair defenseman is on the ice for over 20 minutes a game and touches the puck hundreds of times, often for just 1 fleeting second. We really need to boo that?!? I’m sure that most of the people booing have no idea why they are doing it, but are simply joining in the negativity around them because that’s easier to do. Sadly, we find community in this negativity and anti-others mentality.
Now where this story gets even worse is that Subban happens to be one of the very few black players in the NHL and this persistent, collective negativity also leads to much more nefarious and overt verbal assaults and racist comments directed daily at one of the league’s best players. This kind of behavior came to a head after a game a few years ago when Subban scored a late game-winning goal. Soon afterwards, literally hundreds of offensive and racist tweets and social media messages were posted on-line by Boston fans – simply because he beat their team and was better on a given day. How have we so lost the notion of supporting our team and being gracious in both victory and defeat? This is us choosing to be defined by what we are against.
While the examples of politics or professional sports obviously do not represent typical life for you and for me, they are absolutely illustrative of what we all face every day. There are multiple people in this community who have completely shut off or tempered their access to social media largely because of the negativity and its impact on them. Anybody ever read the comments section after an on-line news story? The comments below any story from any publication will at some point devolve into either some version of: A) “Obama is a socialist” or B) “Tom Brady is a cheater”. The overall amount of negativity we face every day is staggering. Try to find a comment that begins with “I am for . . .” or “This is what I believe in . . .” This is what is spilling over into our day to day lives.
Why is it that when Paul reads the story about Larry Stewart, the Secret Santa who handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in small bills for years in Kansas City and Chicago that it feels to me like a quaint outlier and not a defining characteristic of our current society, where people know what they believe in and then go out in their day to day lives and live in line with that. Larry Stewart did that. Even in this Morning Reading about this very issue, I am acutely aware that I’ve spent the last few minutes highlighting many of the things that I think are wrong and that this speech risks being defined by those counter examples, rather than highlighting what I (or we) truly believe in.
So, right here is where that changes. I am going flip that script here by doing a couple things that take us back in the right direction. I want to begin this by relaying to you all what people in this community are FOR. Thanks to those of you who took the time to submit these to me last week when I asked for them. It was truly amazing and inspiring to read your words and thoughts. If you didn’t write anything, I still encourage you to think today (and tomorrow and the next day) about what you are FOR and what you truly believe in and then to reflect on this often as you make decisions about how you live day to day.
(I only have time to read answers to the first question, though the others are equally powerful)
I am FOR:
Equality in diversity
The Golden Rule
True equality and world peace
Treating others with respect and ensuring others do the same
Standing up for human rights and social justice
Doing the right thing in the face of adversity
Protecting our natural world: Living sustainably so that future generations may enjoy our earth
The future development of science to give everybody a more convenient life
Justice, peace, and equality
Life. Nothing good happens without living and experiencing different perspectives and ideas that other people have.
Peace, love, joy and a sense of wonder
Adventuring with my family and friends
I am for supporting my family and students in the ways that I can.
I am for being intentional with my time and resources.
I am for women’s rights and being kind to all people.
Everyone “playing nicely together”. Follow the rules of Kindergarten … you don’t have to agree with everyone always, but you do need to respect the differences. Be kind to all.
For continuing to learn and grow
I am here to live life to the fullest.
Food systems that: promote vibrant, sustainable communities, provide healthy and delicious sustenance to our bodies, support economic and social justice for every person and heal the planet
Truth, beauty and love
Learning about others
Freedom and peace, for equality and respecting each other, for expressing myself in words, art, and music
WOW. While the specifics on this “list” certainly demonstrate some variability, it is truly amazing to me to read these words and see that what undergirds all of them is almost entirely both universal and consistent. Not a single person said they were for divisiveness or isolation, or that they value putting others down or taking more than they give. I suspect that for others across this community and across the world whose responses aren’t included in this that their answers would not deviate from these essential and foundational principles of good. If that is in fact true at least to some extent, is it not a much easier proposition to figure out how simply to better align our day to day actions with what we believe and what we are for, rather than spending our energies attacking others’ ideas or trying to change what other people believe?
Author and entrepreneur Jonathan Fields writes in his new book “How to Live a Good Life” that all we need to do “to live a good life” is to focus on three things – these three things resonate deeply with me and are foundational to all the things that I am FOR – and it seems also for many of you. So here’s the last piece of what I promised. Via Mr. Fields, this is what I am choosing to be FOR AND trying to live up to each day.
He describes them as buckets we need to consistently work to fill, but they are: Vitality, Connection and Contribution.
“an optimal state of mind and body. . . you feel:
Energized, fit, strong and flexible enough to participate fully in life
Aware of and capable of being in the moment
Optimistic about the future
Peaceful and calm; able to dissipate stress
Able to bounce back from adversity
Immersed in a process of growth
Grateful for what is right in life
Fueled by a sense of meaning
Is about nourishing relationships
About intimate partners, family, friends, colleagues, co-conspirators and like-minded community
About love and lust, passion and compassion, resonance and belonging
It’s about how well we know and relate to ourselves, those around us near and far and the planet we live on. And our relationship with the experience of something greater than us
About “How we bring our gifts to this world”
It’s the answer to the poet Mary Oliver’s gorgeous question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
About contributing to the world in a meaningful way, even if that ‘world’ is a single person. It’s about knowing you’re doing the thing you’re here to do
It’s a real sense of knowing that what you are doing matters
Your calling is pulling you from ahead rather than pushing from behind
About accessing your full potential, your strengths and your gifts and being Fully expressed, seen and heard.
Every single thing on every list I’ve ever written or thought about fits into these three buckets and these have helped me to answer my own question about what am I FOR. So, now what do we do?
Obviously, identifying what you are for and what you truly believe in are important first steps – though ones I submit we all need to do more often. These are not things I would have identified as being FOR 30 years ago or even 10. Even if you are 15 years old, what you believe matters, as does trying to align your actions with those beliefs. Now I believe my task is to continue trying to live my life consciously with these overarching ideals as the framework: What am I doing today that fills my vitality, connection and contribution buckets?
Josh encouraged you on Friday to think about writing your book –which is a great way to think about this, no matter your stage in life. I’d add to that challenge to also spend time to determine overtly what you are FOR? TODAY. Write it down. Cross it out and rewrite it again until you can point to it and say with confidence “That’s me!” Then take this and share it with people that you care about and those who will help hold you accountable to it. Or who can call your bluff on it if necessary. Then go out and try to live your life consciously with these ideals as the background music that is playing in your ears every day. So, I’ll end this as we began with a couple simple questions.
What are YOU for? and What are YOU going to do today that proves it to the world?
Have a Great Day!