Sinister and Gauche: Life on the Left

The Latin word for left is sinistra.  The French word is gauche.  Neither is a very attractive way of describing those of us who are left-handed and find ourselves on the left side of politics and religion.  Which is me.  I was born into a traditional mainstream Protestant Republican family, but they were all right-handed and pretty left-brained. At least I was born after the public schools ended the practice of trying to convert lefties to write with their right hands.

There is a subset of left-handed people who, like me, score high on standardized tests and have allergies, a set of characteristics associated with good left-right brain integration.  Don’t ask me why that’s true.  It’s science, more correlation than causation, but I’ll take it.  Having good left-right brain integration, I can get my imaginative, mystic, creative  right side of the  brain ( I call it the place where God hangs out) to collaborate with my linear, analytical left side of the brain.  It’s a useful way to be, especially as a teacher, writer, policy analyst, and public speaker.

There are definitely drawbacks to being a lefty in a world designed by and for right-handed people.  Think of those desks with chairs attached in high school and college.  The writing space is on the right side.  Notebooks. Cars. Soup ladles.  Scissors. Lefties are more prone to accidents in a world designed for the right-handed majority.But we are probably also more adaptable, and often more ambidextrous at least in limited ways.  I use knives and scissors with my right hand, always have, and I am a pretty poor batter on either side of the bat. My mother could teach me to sew but not to knit, which I had to teach myself because everything was backwards.

Having embraced my leftness bodily, I turned to the left side of the mind and spirit and embraced first the political left and then the religious left (after all, I came of age in the sixties).   Not too far left in either case.  I always joked that my mother was so relieved that I came home from college after my freshman year neither pregnant nor communist that she didn’t mind that I had become a Democrat. Far left in religion is atheism, but that didn’t speak to me, so I gradually found my religious home in Unitarian Universalism, the left frontier of mainstream organized religion.

Being a liberal left-handed Yankee (raised and educated in New England) female professor at a conservative (in the 1960s) largely male, recently military southern University was not all drawbacks.  In fact, my first department head said if I was just black, I would be perfect. He could check off all the diversity boxes.  I would be much less useful in that respect if I had wound up on the Left Coast, also known as the Pacific Northwest.

Sinister and gauche?  Fine, I’ll take it.  I rejoice in all my varieties of leftness. And to my Righty friends in body, some also in mind and spirit, I wish you equal comfort in discovering and experience your rightness.  Just try not to confuse right and left with right and wrong.

 

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Lone Rangers and Residual Obligants

Leadership in volunteer organizations has high turnover and frequent burnout.  If you are paid staff or a volunteer leader in a church, civic organization, or other volunteer community, you need to brace yourself for that possibility, whether it is burning out yourself or the constant challenge of finding, training, and supporting new leaders. Why does this happen?  One explanation is what I call the Lone Ranger syndrome.

In order to describe the work of corporations, economists have invented a fictional character called the residual claimant.  That’s the person, or persons, who get what’s left over after the revenues roll in and the company’s suppliers and workers and banks have been paid.  That leftover is called profit—or loss.  In a for-profit company, profit or loss belongs to the residual claimant—the owners in a privately owned company, the stockholders in a publicly traded company.

In volunteer organizations, there is no residual claimant, because presumably there is no profit or loss.  But there is something similar.  In these organizations, people accept various responsibilities. They may sort groceries or do client intake in a food bank, coach a kids’ basketball team or take care of the grounds, edit the newsletter or make the coffee.  But there are usually some leftover responsibilities that don’t belong to anyone in particular. It may be putting the chairs back after a meeting, or welcoming visitors, but whatever the leftover chores are, they belong to the person (or people) I call the residual obligant.  In most volunteer organizations, it’s the paid staff, or the president, or some of each.

Think about the times when you were the residual obligant.  How did it make you it feel? Virtuous? Resentful? You are not alone, even though you may feel that way.  The leftover tasks that don’t seem to belong to anyone are the ones that make leaders burn out. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a call that someone has had to drop an obligation or needed a meeting covered. I may need to find someone to drive a member somewhere or be there to sign for a package or fill in for a missing speaker/teacher/geeter//cake provider.  I recall the time that a colleague was supposed to give a speech in a distant county, and he called in sick.  The group asked if he would send the speech and they would read it.  Turned out, not to my surprise, he hadn’t written it yet, and wasn’t planning to.  It was five days before my daughter’s wedding, and her in-laws were arriving that day, holding the rehearsal dinner three days later at my house.  I hadn’t cleaned the refrigerator.  I wrote the speech and sent it to the group, and three of my close friends cleaned the refrigerator for me. It was great delegating, because I was the only other person equipped to write that particular speech, and my friends were happy to be able to support me and my family in getting ready for the wedding.

One response to the challenge of unassigned duties is a common style of leadership in volunteer communities that I call the “Lone Ranger syndrome.” For women, it might be called the Supermom syndrome.  It’s easier to do it myself than to hunt down a volunteer or pester a teenage daughter. But being unwilling or unable to delegate is a form of failure in leadership, because part of your job is to teach people (or offspring) what it means to be part of a community or a family.

The Lone Ranger leadership styles takes various forms.  The first is the delusion of superman (or more often, woman). The thinking process goes like this: I know better than these fools and I can set everything straight single-handedly.  Give me advice I can agree with if you want to belong to my team, which is not really a team because I get to make all the decisions and take all the credit.

The second style might be labeled helicopter mom, a term popular among University faculty and staff working with young adults. It is based on fear and the need to control. Here the thought process is like this: If I really delegate, I lose control.  The person to whom I delegated may screw up and I will have to clean up the mess. So even when I delegate I am sorely tempted to continue to oversee, second guess, and often overrule. This style relies heavily on preventing people from making mistakes, but making mistakes is actually one of the primary ways by which we learn.

The third Lone Ranger leadership style is based on an aversion to asking for help.  It’s easier to do it all myself. Watch this person burn out.  Watch this person scare off anyone else from picking up her mantle because the job looks too overwhelming.  I have operated in that style in the past, but I hope I have learned better.

What all three Lone Rangers have in common is that they fail to create a sense of ownership among others and to develop new leadership that can pick up the ball when it’s time to move on.  All three styles are also an invitation to burnout. A lone ranger or superman operating style fails to build and sustain the connected web of community that can prevent or mitigate future problems and crises. So lone rangers need to be appreciated for their good intentions but schooled in the ways of community, a hard task in a society that is very individualistic.

Each of us needs to look at our own operating style in leadership roles or the qualities we look for in choosing leaders. We need to reflect on how our communities—families, neighborhoods, congregations, nations—can all work better if we adopt, model, teach and/or applaud a leadership style that is intentionally collaborative. Delegation is an important form of collaboration. It’s also the best way to resist becoming the residual obligant.

There are three important ways to keep that from happening.  One is to have clear job descriptions for positions and committees and volunteer roles.  The second is to delegate. And the third is to break down the work into more manageable pieces so that no one has to do anything all the time.

Writing job descriptions may sound tedious, and you wonder if anyone Is going to read them.  Hopefully the nominating committee will read them.  Or perhaps the new treasurer or the membership chair of the program chair will take the time to get to know them.  Just as the president has to delegate, so can these other leaders delegate specific tasks to members of their committees or teams and not become an unplanned and unwilling residual obligant. So one of your tasks as a leader is to make sure there are job descriptions and that everyone gets one when they come on board.

Delegate is a great word to have in your leadership vocabulary.  Maybe you have just had a discussion about how to make the annual meeting attractive so that more members will attend, get enthused, get involved, and work to further the organization’s mission and purpose.  But there are details. Publicity, food and drink, venue, invitations, program, decorations…. DON’T say I can do that the first time there is a silence.  Some of these responsibilities fall in the purview of committees. Other tasks can be broken down into single assignments.  There may be suggestions of people to ask. Develop a protocol for making sure that the tasks are covered, and make it clear that if there aren’t volunteers enough, it won’t happen—whatever it is.  At the end of the meeting, reinforce the plan for sharing responsibility by reviewing who has agreed to do what and having the secretary append that list to the minutes. And try NOT to check up on people and make sure they are doing what they promised to.  A simple email reminder to everyone involved should be sufficient.  Yes, your leaders and volunteers have things to do, places to go, but so do you.  You have a life.  Keep living it.

Another way to delegate is to assign someone or some group, perhaps the membership committee, to be responsible for identifying potential volunteers. So when you need helpers to coordinate an event or perform a regular service, ask the membership committee to find someone.  Making a habit of delegation even when it seems easier to do it yourself is actually a service to the organization.  You are modeling delegation, and setting a pattern of shared responsibility that hopefully will last after the end of your presidency. If you are in a system where there is a president in waiting—a vice president with expectation of succession, or a president-elect—make sure you are communicating that lesson not just by example but also the need for a broader base of volunteer participation.  It builds community, forges new connections, and makes the organization stronger and more effective.

The third strategy is to break big assignments down into small parts.  So if all Amy has to do at the fundraiser is to set up tables and help decorate them, that’s a doable task. Maybe next year she will do more, but this year she can feel like she is useful, appreciated, and part of a team. One step at a time.

There is an important relationship between delegating and creating a sense of ownership.  In a largely volunteer organization, people who aren’t asked to do anything feel less like owners and more like customers. In a democratic society, whether it’s local government, parent teachers associations, community theater, community food banks, Rotary Clubs, or churches, you want active and engaged owners, not complaining customers. So next time you say to yourself, okay, I can do that, stop.  You aren’t doing yourself or the organization any favors. Ask Tonto. Ask your teenager. Ask a committee. Ask, and it may surprise you what you receive in return.

 

 

 

 

Hyphenate with Care

In reading religious and cultural history, I have been struck by several hyphenations that would have been and sometimes still are objectionable to at least one partner in the hyphen.  In reading the Sister Fidelma novels, set in 7th century Ireland, her husband Eadulf is often referred to as “the Saxon.”  Patiently, he replies, I’m an Angle.  No luck, Eadulf, you are stuck with the Anglo-Saxons for eternity.

Then there is Greco-Roman.  It’s true that there was a cultural influence, but the Romans (who conquered the Greeks) had no particular fondness for Greece.  Because of the influence of Greek literature, theatre, religion, and philosophy on Roman culture, however, the two have been in a somewhat acrimonious marriage for eternity as Greco-Roman culture.  Likewise Judao-Christian: consider how badly the Christians have historically treated their religious ancestors.  I’m pretty sure that neither the Greeks nor the Jews (nor, for that matter, the Angles) really consented to being reduced to an adjective. How hard is it to say Jewish and Christian, Greek and Roman if you insist on lumping them together for some purpose? That’s why our language has conjunctions, which don’t have to be replaced by a dashed line.

Yes, there are places for hyphenation. It is one of the ways in which the English language figures out how to have a noun modify an adjective (Star-spangled banner, star-crossed lovers, etc.). It is a way of identifying heritage as well as nationality or citizenship—African-American and Italian-American, for example.  It’s also fine when it is done by choice.  Many women and increasingly couples hyphenate last names, so Jane Smith and Ryan Jones become Smith-Jones, or Jones-Smith, but neither becomes an adjective.  I’m not sure what happens when their daughter Jennifer Smith-Jones marries Edward Morse-Riley, but that’s for them to figure out.

So please hyphenate sparingly, respectfully, and with the consent of those whose names you may be taking in vain.  Or just muster the strength to type the word “and” instead of a hyphen.

 

 

 

I Pledge Allegiance?

I do not like the pledge to the flag.  Mind you, I love my country, right or wrong (and frequently wrong).  But it took me a very long time to figure out what I was supposed to be saying with the words pledge allegiance.  I figured out the pledge part when I became a Brownie scout, but allegiance is not on the early elementary school vocabulary list.  Couldn’t find it in Dick and Jane, or the Bobbsey Twins. in medieval times, one owed allegiance (service in exchange for protection) to one’s liege lord or feudal overlord.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a feudal overlord around these parts in recent memory.

The pledge is a kind of loyalty oath, followed by a lot of exaggerated claims about how good we are as a nation.  Is it indivisible? Not really. Do we have liberty and justice for all?  Arguable.  Goals, yes.  Description of the state of the union, not.

So I would like to suggest that the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts and the Rotary clubs and yes, my own beloved League of Women Voters, consider a more appropriate way of affirming their patriotism on those public occasions when they feel moved to do so.  With just a few verb changes in the last line, we could recite a ringing affirmation that commits us not just to agree about how wonderful we are but to actually try to make it happen.  That alternative is the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  With my teeny tiny edits, this is how it would read:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, did ordain and do promise to support establish this Constitution for the United States of America.  I am certain that the founding fathers would not object tinkering with a couple of verbs to move that affirmation from 1787 to 2019.

And while we are at it, can we replace the unsingable, militaristic Star Spangled Banner with the more lovely, inspirational, aspirational America the Beautiful?  Or is that asking too much?

 

Moderation as a Virtue

It has been widely asserted that pride is the mother of all the other seven deadly sins.  If so, is there a candidate for the mother of all (or most) virtues? Perhaps anti-pride, like humility?  Humility is arguably a Christian virtue, but abject humility is at the opposite end of Aristotle’s golden mean fulcrum.  To Aristotle, any virtue resides in the center, the golden mean. Its opposite at one end is a vice, and so is its extreme at the other end. The classic example is the virtue of courage, its opposite being cowardice and its extreme being foolhardiness.

I would suggest that realistic self-awareness is the virtue in the center between the extreme of pride and the opposite of humility  But I  do not assert that a healthy self-awareness is necessarily the mother of all virtue (although one could make a case).

Rather, I see the underrated virtue of temperance as the core virtue, because it calls us to the middle of that Aristotelian fulcrum on every score.  No, not the temperance of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was only about drinking. Temperance is much broader, practicing many forms of self-control, seeking the middle ground.  A better contemporary term might be moderation, especially in a world where both political parties are driving away their moderates and making compromise impossible. But since Aristotle listed temperance among the four cardinal virtues (along with prudence, courage and justice), I will yield to his authority.  The thesaurus actually lists moderation as a synonym.  Who knows what the term was in Greek, and what is the best translation?

I voted in my first presidential election in 1964. Barry Goldwater insisted that moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  Had I not already committed my vote to Lyndon Johnson, that would have done it for me.  I am temperate. I am a moderate, a proud moderate, a humble moderate. I am proud to call myself a moderate because I believe that moderation or temperance enables us to dwell together in a somewhat civilized fashion. I am humble to call myself a moderate because I know how imperfectly I live out that virtue in my daily life.

Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, defined neurosis as retreating to a limited defensible fortress of ideas.  By that definition, we live in a neurotic world. It’s time to step out of our carefully defended fortresses and step joyfully and courageously to the middle of the road, knowing that we thereby open ourselves to attacks from both sides of the road.

My War on Grass

It started just as an effort to get my yard ready for spring.  Which includes the large tangled mess of grass and weeds known euphemistically as my lawn.  I am 77 years old, and I mow it in two physically demanding half-hour sessions on two separate days every week with a self-propelled cordless electric mower.  And as I do, I plot ways to reduce the amount of my corner townhouse lot that is occupied by green weeds and some actual grass. As I mow, I ask, what good is it doing? What good am I doing? Yes, the clover feeds bees, but like my neighbors, I keep mowing it down. (I did plant red clover in a garden bed, and am anxiously waiting for it to bloom).  I have no fruit trees for them.  I have a couple of spindly blueberry bushes that the birds enjoy, and six trees, five of which could host a few bird nests and some squirrels . No vegetable garden (neither forbidden nor encouraged by the HOA). Lots of flower beds that I carefully hand-weeded and mulched over the space of the last month, forsaking the use of Roundup as a chemical of uncertain properties that I do not wish to encounter.  My brother the Vermont organic farmer says that it poses risks to human health.

My next door neighbor has a tiny yard and a green thumb and was lamenting not being able to raise vegetables when I saw the light.  A space between my patio and hers, about 150 square feet, enough for some vegetables—and a piece of lawn that will no longer need mowing. Two gardeners to tend to the planting, weeding, and watering.   I checked the sun to make sure every part of it was getting some sun during the day, and found someone to trim some lower branches on two trees to reduce the shade.  So Monday is the appointed day to trim the trees, dig up the grass, and till the soil with organic topsoil and fertilizer. No chemicals allowed!

I know that lawn is useful for younger families with children who play there and for picnics, but in my retirement community I see none of that, just a lot of hired help showing up weekly to mow and spray a lawn that is not used for anything.  Even dogs don’t get to play on the lawn, because they have to be on a leash. So the next step is to convert as much of my yard as I possibly can to smaller trees, bushes and shrubs that invite our birds and bees and butterflies to stick around.  Butterfly bush. A few fruit trees.  Every chunk of land converted to a different use means less grass to mow and to neglect.  Mowing uses human and electric energy when I am trying to reduce my carbon footprint. Willful neglect means not using a variety of herbicides and pesticides to make my lawn look like part of a gold course.

As I embarked on this war, I have been more aware of other people’s lawns both in my retirement community and around the city as I drive by.  Many of the homeowners have shrunk their  lawns and expanded the other kinds of vegetation that makes their little corner of the world more inviting to the passers-by, as well safer and more supportive  as to our neighbors the squirrels and the worms (good for the soil), the bees and the butterflies, the rabbits and the birds.

As my friend Mary Ann says, I have a WOG—War On Grass.  Won’t you enlist in my army and join the battle?

 

 

Hope Springs Eternal

The equinox, known as Ostara, is March 20th, marks the official beginning of spring.  Lent, the 40 days of prayer and fasting, began March 6th.  Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, invites us to celebrate the greening of the earth in the northern hemisphere. A mowing and planting season is underway in my southern state, and even in the colder north where I grew up, signs of spring are poking through the still cold dirt. It is the season of love (In the spring a young man’s fancy…), fertility, growth, and renewal. Spring is early this year, with a good head start long before the equinox.  My lawn needed its first mowing in late February.

Beneath this blooming spring is a fragility that re-emerges in the fall and lasts through the winter months.  All life is fragile, tentative. And so is the earth, not the seemingly endless resource that generations of humans believed it to be. Earth may continue, but life on earth is much more vulnerable.  We see the effects of climate change, the accelerated loss of species and wildlife habitat, the battle over access to clean potable water, the increased migration of refugees from human destruction, the growth of militant nationalism, and the loss of arable land as symptoms of an underlying illness.

 It is too easy to shrug our shoulders and say, what can I do, what can one person do? Or as Louis XIV said, Apres moi, la deluge—for which he took no responsibility, leaving his grandson to face the guillotine. But while none of us can save the earth single-handedly, we can do our small part.  The more affluent we are, the more power we have to play a bigger part. We can begin with all the things we have been told would slow the process of destruction—eat less meat, grow more vegetables, stop using pesticides that kill bees, consume less energy, walk more. Practicing those small acts of reverence toward mother earth can feed a movement from despair to hope.  But no one can do it alone. We can join with others to share ideas, to spread the practice of reverence, and to change laws and policies from local land use to some of the elements of the Green New Deal.

The motto of my adopted state of South Carolina is dum spiro, spero–while I breathe, I hope. Hope does not guarantee success, but lack of hope does guarantee failure.  Let us celebrate the coming of spring as a renewal of the three central Christian virtues of hope, faith, and love—hope for a future for our grandchildren, faith in the power to make change, and love for our mother earth.