Posts Tagged ‘Responsibility’

If I Were A Rich Man …

Sorry for starting this column off making you silently hum that familiar tune from Fiddler on the Roof! 

Last week while I was waiting for the dealership to complete the oil change on my car, I struck up a conversation with the woman who was sitting next to me as we watched a clip promoting a television show called “Secret Millionaire”.  The premise of the show is that someone with money goes incognito into an impoverished community and agrees to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the lives of those in the community.  She told me that she loved that show and it inspired her to see someone giving back like that and hoped to do something like that herself one day.

In the course of our chat, I also learned that she is going through a divorce, recently filed for bankruptcy and had been struggling with her teenage son who has a drug addiction.  When the service rep entered the waiting area and began recounting the necessary repairs to her car, I pretended to be engrossed in the magazine on my lap but I could feel the tension building long before he told her that the repairs would exceed $3700, money I was sure she didn’t have.  She authorized the service department to handle the one safety issue that otherwise left the car unsafe to drive.

As we continued to pass the time waiting for our respective vehicles to be ready, she told me that she had been a homemaker for the past 23 years and that she was struggling with a new sales job she had just taken since she has to support herself.  She had been a top sales rep for Xerox before her children were born and she had taken the sales job since it was the only job she knew how to do. 

I asked her what she longed to do, if money wasn’t a concern.  I find that whenever I ask people this question, they always have an answer on the tip of their tongues.  Everyone knows what they wish they were spending their time on.  Sometimes it’s a sport or a hobby or a charitable mission or a dream they long ago put up on a shelf because someone labeled it as “unrealistic”.

Her answer was that she’d like to work with women whose husbands had cheated on them, to help them recover their self-esteem, like she had had to do and to help mothers whose children have a drug addiction.  I asked her what she was doing to make that dream a reality.

That’s when she looked at me as if I had three heads.  It seems to be the response I get most frequently when I ask someone why they aren’t doing what they really wish they were.  Her subsequent statement also echoed a version of what I hear most from people who aren’t following their dreams, “What would I do for money?  Everyone knows I wouldn’t be able to support myself and my kids doing that.”

I wondered if it was really true that she would be unable to support herself and her children doing something she was passionate about.  Why do people assume that their passions are incompatible with economic sustenance?  So, I figured I had nothing to lose.  I asked her what it would take for her to be willing to do what she was passionate about.  Her answer, like many I’ve heard before, was that when she had enough money saved she would think about doing it.  “How much money?” I asked.  She said, “I don’t know.  I guess ‘enough’.”   I pressed a little further, how was she supporting herself and her children now and learned that she was living with her mother since her husband refused to pay his child support.

I asked whether her mother would throw her and her children out of the house if she didn’t bring home “enough” money.  Would her children be forced to become shoeless beggars?  Of course not.  I asked whether she had thought about just staying with her husband while he was having an affair and doing the work she loved.  She said no because she didn’t want her kids to see her living a lie and selling herself out.  Can you guess my next question?  Why was it better for her children to see her selling herself out to a job she hated, while she waited to garner “enough” money to do what made her happy?

My conversation partner became a little aggravated at that point and said that if she had enough money then she would do exactly that, but until then it was better to teach her kids responsibility and the value of hard work.  I’ll admit it, I was pushing the edge of a conversation with a relative stranger when I asked her what exactly the value was of the hard work she was modeling.  And why the lesson for her children about responsibility couldn’t be modeled  in doing what brought her happiness instead of modeling responsibility as a miserable duty that must be endured to earn money so one could then be “happy”.

I reminded her of how much she admired the Secret Millionaires, how each of them made a point of finding out what really made others’ lives better and made their contribution doing exactly that.  Did she really need to wait until she was a millionaire to be able to make her contribution?  Couldn’t she do that in addition to (or instead of) holding a sales job?  I wasn’t encouraging her to be a loafer and live in her mother’s house forever or to leave her children without shoes or with hungry bellies.  What I was doing was questioning the falsity of the unspoken premise that is only the dollar value or enormity of our contribution that makes it worth doing and that, until we each have amassed our personal fortune, we can’t do what makes us happy or that contributes to the well being and happiness of others who are less fortunate?  I think that’s a myth that too many people have bought into – the eternal deferral of what fills you with passion until after you’ve made “enough” money – whatever that is. 

Over the past year, in addition to working on the book I have been writing on work-life balance issues, I have been guiding individuals who are looking for a solution to exactly that dilemma – how to reconcile their desires to do what fills them with passion and still provide for their families while making a difference in their community.  It is this work that fills me most with my own sense of purpose and I enjoy inspiring others to find ways big and small to live their purpose NOW, not later, in an authentic and meaningful way.  I hope you will join me at one of my many workshops and gatherings to explore the solution to this dilemma for yourself. Until then, I leave you with two very important questions:

What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  – Mary Oliver       



What Seeds Are You Planting?

Every year I coax myself through winter by devouring the garden catalog from Silver Heights Farm in Cochecton Center, New York. Trina nurtures an amazing variety of things that I can transplant as seedlings every spring to get a jumpstart on my vegetable garden. While there are some things that come up best from seeds like beans and carrots, my wooded lot (and my personal dearth of patience) just doesn’t offer me enough sunshine to grow tomatoes and peppers from seed before fall comes. In my many years of backyard gardening, I have learned some lessons, such as if I plant carrots, I can’t expect to harvest oranges, so I think carefully about what I want to harvest when I decide what to plant. With the vagaries of climate in our area, it also means I am quick to decide what’s a weed and to firmly yank it out by the roots.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed the spread of a really invasive weed throughout the county I live in. I had only read about it taking root in other parts of the country, but I’ve started to see signs of it here. It seems to be spreading and showing up in places I hadn’t seen it before. I recognized it as the genus “Blame” and I realized that it wasn’t staying confined to its own family like most plants do. Nope, this one was definitely a weed and it was move stealthily from one yard to another and its roots were crowding out healthier growth throughout the county.

A neighbor mentioned it at a coffee shop. She said to the man she was sitting with in the booth behind mine, “Why didn’t Somebody do something?” I knew I shouldn’t eavesdrop, but I realized she was the third person that day who had made reference to this insidious rot of blame. I knew that blame grows wildly in the shade of denial and that it was spreading across the country and was now threatening the gardens and forests of my community.

I had been reading about this invader in the paper for many months. “Why didn’t Somebody do something to stop the banks from making all those mortgages?” For heaven’s sake, why didn’t Somebody do something to stop the nuclear meltdown in Japan! Somebody ought to figure out how we can avoid cutting back on services without raising taxes. It seemed like everywhere I went, people were looking for a mysterious weed-killer to deploy against this kudzu-like duo of denial and blame that had crept into our conversations, robbing us of the fruits of our labors.

Everyone seemed to wonder why the manufacturers weren’t issuing more of this Somebody that they could sprinkle on the problems they faced like some kind of magic cure to bring this black rot of irresponsibility under control. I started to wonder if individually we aren’t each the “Somebody” we’re searching for.

I supposed the blame and denial had taken root because maintaining the gardens of our lives is hard work, especially when we’re maintaining the common ground of a community. In many ways, it’s just easier to hope that spraying on some nebulous “Somebody” will make everything fine when we’re ready to harvest our share. But that head-in-the-sand approach allows the weeds to take over and pretty soon it’s hard to find the dreams we thought we had planted. I want to harvest friendship and prosperity from the safety of this common ground and I want to take pleasure in sharing that labor and that bounty with my neighbors.

In tending this plot of land we share, I am diligent to make sure that no one is spraying RoundUp on it as a way to keep the weeds of blame under control. Pesticides like anger kill everything it is sprayed on – weed and vegetable alike. Blame needs to be pulled up by the roots and we all need to be careful not to accidentally tote the seeds of blame to someone else’s home. That means mindfully disposing of rumor and using the bright light of personal accountability to clean our tools before digging in anyone else’s dirt.

Fruitful gardens benefit from composting – it can turn leftovers and yard waste into rich organic matter. Unlike MiracleGro, which gives a quick, but short lived burst of blooms, doing the work to enrich the soil makes for long-lasting, healthy growth and delicious, satisfying results. I personally suggest using your hands to turn together in your own yard equal parts of responsibility, selfless effort and humility. When we each bring together the products of that effort and moisten it with a shower of kindness, we will be amazed by how fertile our common ground is.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. What we plant in the months ahead will ensure a bountiful harvest for our community. It’s amazing what one seed can grow.