When I formed my most recent Board for Myself, I was struck by the occasional ways that everyone in the room thought about a thing the same as I did. But I was more interested in the times when our thoughts were highly divergent, especially when I was the odd man out. There were only a handful of times when this latter situation was in play, but for me the most memorable was this: After one meeting, it took me more than a week to realize that all of the board members were focused on what I was going to do, while I was wondering why I would do it. It was like I was asking a famous coach for method acting, “What’s my motivation here, Mr. Strasberg?” Board members were focused on the script, while I was considering its enactment.
Social justice has been a big enough topic in which I have planned and lived my life for the better part of the past three decades. One might even call it my vocation. Thus, while I started a population health program and an LGBT public health organization, social justice has been the organizing force beneath them: eliminating racism, interrupting sexism, ending health disparities, advocating for change, building alliances, nurturing leadership — all of these are contained within the rubrics of social justice as I have seen it.
While I don’t plan to abandon my call to social justice, the focus for it after my leadership of the agency I founded was not clear in the first half of 2014. Following the advice of my board members, I increased the distance of my daily walks, that period in my day when I just let my thoughts wander. I also paid attention to the content and direction of those thoughts.
• A woman walked up to our table as I was feeding Paul at the Cheesecake Factory and said “I just love watching your kindness to one another.”
• I feel guilty about not visiting my ailing neighbor before he died.
• I am deeply hurt and angry about old friends and acquaintances who have walked away as Paul’s health has worsened. I am equally delighted by others who have walked up and gotten closer, just as they are.
• I made a big fuss over a new exchange student down the block to let him know his neighbors are delighted with his coming.
• If Paul pre-deceases me, I will likely experience life in a nursing home first hand. I don’t completely like that prospect, but believe I will do well because I am relatively skilled at connecting with others.
• In my childhood, I felt like I was missing something by being more connected to my large extended family than I was to my neighbors.
• I get fascinated by how community centers — Polish, Italian, Jewish, LGBT — don’t seem to define community.
• One of my fond childhood memories is watching my mother read daily cartoons about Mrs. Worth, a woman who travelled to different communities and advised them on their challenges. My mother also was an avid reader of Ionne Quinsby Griggs, a local advice columnist.
• I wonder how we will ever address racism in Milwaukee, Ferguson, the US, the world, if we don’t see each other as deeply connected as human beings in community.
• I have recently realized that my adolescence in a friary gave me a way of looking at things that is not widely shared.
• A colleague in Chicago is constantly mystified by her co-workers lack of teamwork, an attribute in which they believe they excel. She was a nun long ago.
• I am ambivalent about democracy. Decision making is critical in communities, but many decisions will shatter communities if left to community members.
• Flash mobs, big choirs, and joint problem solving bring me to tears of joy.
• I have no friends from childhood or adolescence. I still regularly see co-workers from 45 years ago.
Against this backdrop of random thoughts (inspiration?), I understand that the content of my encore is community. It was as if I were asking others for my motivation while dismissing the myriad thoughts that flashed against the screen of my consciousness.
Shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree in 1970, I was cashing a check at a local supermarket. While I was waiting in line, a blind woman behind me tugged at my elbow. She was well-known in the neighborhood. One could hear her cane tapping throughout the commercial district from early morning till well after dark. That day, handing me a piece of what looked like bumpy card stock, she asked, “Can you tell me how much this check is made out for?” I stared at the check long enough to recognize the pattern of raised dots that is braille. When I told her I couldn’t because I don’t read braille, she replied, “Turn it over, dummy!” Sure enough, the other side of the card was a standard check form. She was only asking the amount to confirm what she knew to be there in braille. Over the past four decades I have thought about that experience many, many times. I remain struck by what appears to be a type of mental sloth or mental rigidity that creeps up on me periodically.
It was sort of like that when I considered again being the odd man out in the Board for Myself last summer. I was holding the answer to my motivation for my encore career in my own hands, but failing to turn it over to inspect it carefully. Again, I wonder about what challenged me to avoid turning over this mental card to my encore. Was it mental sloth? Rigid approaches to problem solving? Was it fear? Habit? An unconscious connection to having been raised poor — thinking about the motivation for work as the province of the rich?
I now know that I will apply the heuristics in my mind — those pictures in my mind — and use my writing, projects, coaching, consulting, nudging, telling stories, studying, and thinking to advance community.