Now that I’ve retired from my post as Senior MInister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR, I am experiementing with new ways to create and to communicate.  One of those channels that has been WAY FUN is doing what I’m calling Mini-Reflections, on Twitter.

If you follow my blog, you know that I do longer pieces that I call “Reflections” at least once a week.  These are short reflective essays, with a spiritual bent, generally on issues of the day,  The Mini-Reflections on Twitter can utilize only 140 characters, of course, and I find it challenging to try to say something meaningful in just those few words.  I do these Mini-Reflections once a day, generally in the morning. 

Some of the recent Mini-Reflections I have posted on Twitter are the following:

“There is no such thing as the truth about the past: there is only what you select from the past and how you make meaning from it.”

“The flesh will not hold.  But in its very failing, it teaches us to look beyond itself for meaning.”

“What would it mean to live without expectations–to live patiently, gladly, in the wilderness of your own life?”

These Mini-Reflections have proved popular with my readers on Twitter and Facebook, and so I’m suggesting to you readers of my “Reflections” blog that you might want to receive them, too.  If so, go to or and sign up to receive them daily.

Thanks for your interest in my work–I hope you will continue to enjoy it!




Using Power Well

A newborn baby cries.  That’s the first instance of his exercising of power.  And that’s just the beginning.

Power is exercised by all human beings.  We all leverage our gifts to gain advantage of one kind or another. And there are all kinds of power.  Some people have great intellectual power, others charisma, others good looks, and still others, wealth or charm or talent.  Some hold high office, some are physically strong, others have family ties or reputation.  In and of itself, power is neither good nor evil: it is morally neutral.  It can be used for nefarious ends, or it can be used to heal and to bring justice.  It just depends on the spiritual maturity of the one who wields the power, and the purpose for which it is used.

Two news stories about the use of power, one noble and one ignoble, caught my eye in recent days.

The first was about the death of the revered newsman, Walter Cronkite, at the age of 92.  He was the voice of the people from 1962 to 1981–somehow, listeners expected him to be informed, and honest.  They trusted him.  Cronkite was a modest man, even after he achieved fame.  He was surprised when people came to see him, rather than the people he interviewed.  He was dumbfounded when some suggested that he run for political office. 

Walter Cronkite was there for us at the moon landing (and if you’re old enough, you remember where you were, when you heard Neil Armstrong utter those amazing words); he was there for us when Kennedy was assassinated–he broke precedent, took off those dark glasses and shed that necessary tear for all of us; he was there during the national disgrace of Watergate, reporting the facts, and by doing so, showed us the extent of the political and moral damage.

Cronkite never saw himself as an analyst–he was a newsman, and in fact his title at CBS was “managing editor of the evening news.”  But on one important occasion, he offered a personal perspective, an interpretation of events.  In 1968 he visited Vietnam, and he was appalled by what he saw there.  He returned, knowing that the war was a lost cause.  He produced a rare special program in which he said that the U.S. could not win the war and advocated a negotiated peace settlement.  It is reported that Lyndon Johnson, the sitting President, snapped off the television and stated, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”  Of course, Cronkite was not the sole reason for Johnson’s decision not to run for another term–but that program was a sign Johnson could not overlook.

Cronkite had considerable power in 1968, and he chose to use it to tell the truth to the American people.  He acted with integrity.  He used power well. 

The second example is one that is just the opposite–it illustrates power misused and misappropriated.  I am speaking of the decision of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to suppress the vast research–their own, in fact–about the dangers of driving under the influence of cell phones.  Consumer advocacy groups have “outed” the research by filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The former head of the agency, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, explained the withholding of the information by saying that he was pressed by members of Congress who told him to stick to reseach and not to meddle with lobbying or policy change. 

A Harvard study done in 2003 estimated that cellphone distractions resulted in 2,600 deaths every year, as well as 330,000 moderate or severe injuries. If this data is for 2003, can you even imagine what the 2008 data will look like, as so many more of us acquire and use all kinds of devices in our automobiles–everything from cellphones or hand-free devices (no safer, according to research) or texting or videos?

So how does Dr. Runge sleep at night these days?  And how are the Congresspeople feeling who pressured the agency?  And what about the companies who readily admit the dangers of these devices, while creating more and more of them to tempt drivers?  All of these people have power.  They have power to protect life, or to invite death and injury.

Last Sept. 3 Christopher Hill, a 20-year-old with a perfect driving record, drove past a Goodwill store, where a dresser caught his eye–a dresser that his friend might want.  He dialed her to tell her about it, and just didn’t notice the red light.  He ran into the side of Linda Doyle’s small sport utility vehicle going 45 miles per hour.  She was pronounced dead on the scene. 

Christopher pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, for causing Linda Doyle’s death.  Now when he finds himself a passenger in a car and the driver starts using a cell phone, he becomes nervous, he says.  But he’s a polite guy who doesn’t want to ruffle feathers.  So he doesn’t say anything.

Christopher, let me just say this: you have power now.  Use your power.  Speak, for you have a story that maybe people should hear.


Sonia Sotomayor: Necessary Sacrifices of the High Achieving Woman

Though I consider myself a progressive (yes, a liberal) I like to read columns by conservative columnist David Brooks, of the New York Times.  I follow his writing because I find him reasonable and wise–and refreshingly unpredictable, a rare quality to find in a writer of political commentary.

Today’s essay, “The Way We Live Now,” is one that particularly resonated with me.  Brooks treats the inherent conflicts in the life of the achieving woman, and he shows great sensitivity to the conundrum she faces.  Brooks takes, as a case in point, the current nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

He tells us that Sotomayer’s father died when she was 9, leaving a relationship void–and he reflects that it is amazing how many people who suffer the loss of a parent between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become workaholics and astoundingly high achievers.  That struck a deep cord in me, for I lost my mother at age 9.  I would like to know more about the relationship of loss to high achievement/workaholism. 

Anyway, it is true that I became an intensely focused student, particularly during college and graduate school, and then became a high achiever in my work life.  Like Sotomayor, I had an extended family that expected me to succeed–at least in school.  And like her, I attracted mentors who paid special attention to me and guided me along the way.

Sotomayor’s profile as an adult is different from mine–apparently she was “upbeat and social,” whereas I was mostly depressed and anxious, and tended to turn inward, to my books.

Her marriage broke up after only two years, and she says, “I cannot attribute that divorce to work, but certainly the fact that I wa leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage.”  I note her use of language: she is pulled back, guarded and formal. 

My marriage broke up after six years and the births of two sons.  My husband, a surgeon, didn’t leave me–he would never have left, and that is one of the chief reasons I married him.  But I couldn’t endure the role of the doctor’s wife, living a conventional life and giving dinner parties in order to get referrals for my husband’s practice.  It’s not that he demanded that of me–I demanded that of myself, if I was to be his wife.  So I was the one to leave–to find my work and do it.  A domestic, at home with young children, I was in a constant state of distraction.  What am I supposed to be doing?

Later Sotomayor finds love again, only to lose it once more.  She said of her then-fiance in a swearing-in ceremony in 1998, “The professional success I had achieved before Peter did nothing to bring me genuine personal happiness.”  She said that he had filled the emptiness in her life, that he had altered her life profoundly.  Quite a wonderful public tribute.  He must have been pleased.  But not pleased enough to stay. 

Writers who have researched Sotomayor’s life picture her as having a frantically busy work life, which brings its own kind of fulfillment, no doubt,  But nobody holds her in bed at night after she has been questioned by some half-witted Congressman who projects his own failings on her and calls her “racially biased.”  When she wakes up ill at 4:00 a.m., there is nobody there to take her to the emergency room and hold her hand while she’s waiting to see the doctor.  Basically, there’s nobody there, period.  She can’t earn love or achieve it, in the way she has approached her career.  She knows that.  She is making a choice.

As a matter of fact, the achieving woman lives with a painful irony–she finds that the more she achieves, the less chance she has of finding a satisfying relationship.  Such a woman wants someone she can talk with, on her level, someone who respects subtlties of language, someone whose conversaton carries the same kind of incisive humor as her own.  But where is he to be found?  And this is the point at which Brooks falls short in his analysis–in a couple of important ways.

Brooks says of Sotomayor’s choices, “It’s the story of people in a meritocracy that gets more purified and competitive by the year, with the time demands growing more and more insistent.”  From my perspective, the “meritocracy” Brooks speaks of is not gaining but rather losing strength.  I know doctors who have dropped out of practice to raise children or study calligraphy.  I know corporation folks–lots of them–who’ve dropped out of that race: they are doing stuff like raising vegetables and working in non-profits.  I know an architect who is a stay-at-home dad.  My own son just quit a prestigious job as a Federal prosecutor to teach in the Washington, D.C., school system–for about 1/3 the salary.  Maybe I know these people because I live in Portland, OR, and not in New York City. 

Be that as it may, I have diverted you, dear reader, from the question at hand–what about the woman who is addicted to work?  Ignoring gender issues, Brooks says that these pressures affect men as well as women.  But how does the woman differ, if at all, from the addicted male?  Well, in several ways.  First of all, women are not supposed to be addicted to work–culturally speaking, they are supposed to be addicted to relationships.  Do you think anyone, anywhere, would have written an article about a male Supreme Court justice nominee, criticizing his ability to relate intimately, because he works so hard?  Laughable!  Males are supposed to work hard.  And die young.

And the other unmentioned fact is that behind every high achieving man is a female support system that is fueling his physical and emotional life, so that he can function in this insane fashion.  If I hear just one more statement by a highly honored male who says he owes everything to his wife (who after all, took his clothes to the cleaners, made dinner for him every night, and raised his children), I think I’m going to throw up.

The fact is that there are very few men who want to partner with a star–it just isn’t good for their ego.  And that can make even a very nice, very loving woman, “often aloof,” as Sotomayor’s biographers have portrayed her.  It is true, as Brooks says, that judges cannot freely socialize with lawyers and others who might share her interests–that is even more true of ministers and their congregations.  I, too, occasionally have been called “aloof”–but I know the boundaries that I must keep in order to serve, and so does Sotomayor.  It is a lonely place to be.

The good news for me is that I am now engaged to be married to a man who is not threatened in the least by my work or achievement, who supports me totally, and who has himself been a high achiever.  (Interestingly enough, he also lost a parent early in life.)  Both of us are rethinking the time we have given to work.  We both continue to work hard, because work is a creative outlet, and we love it.  But we also love each other, and life doesn’t go on forever.  So we’re learning to slow down, take walks, and have candlelight dinners.  We learning to be very present with each other. 

Perhaps that void–that old, old loss–is being filled at last. 


When Saying “I’m Sorry” Is Not Enough: the Tragic Life of Robert McNamara

Robert S. McNamara is dead at the age of 93.  He was the whiz kid who saved Ford Motor Company and subsequently became the most influential Secretary of Defense of all time, serving both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.  McNamara was the brilliant strategist who steered Kennedy and the hawkish Chiefs of Staff out of a nuclear confrontation in Cuba, and we should be forever grateful for that.  But he is also the man whose rationality fell short, when he predicted how quickly the U.S. could bring N. Vietnam to its knees.  They just wouldn’t give up.    

McNamara spent all of his years after 1966 in despair and regret about his role as the chief architect of the Vietnam War.  That’s the year he came to understand the nature of the conflict–after he read a book-length C.I.A. study called “The Vietnamese Communists’ Will to Persist,” which concluded that the U.S. was fighting a futile war.  Then he talked with George Allen, a C.I.A. analyst who had studied Vietnam for 17 years and asked his advice.  Allen told him that he should stop the bombing and negotiate a cease-fire with Hanoi. 

At that time, McNamara told his aides to start compiling a top-secret history of the war–a report which would later be known as the Pentagon Papers.  And he sought to influence Lyndon Johnson, who had become President after Kennedy’s assassination in 1965, suggesting in a Sept. phone call to Johnson that the President establish a ceiling on the number of troops in Vietnam and plan to stop the bombing.  Johnson only grunted in response.  

On May 19, 1967, McNamara sent a lengthy and carefully considered paper to President Johnson urging him to negotiate with Hanoi rather than escalate the war.  McNamara wrote, “Most Americans are convinced that somehow we should not have gotten this deeply in.  All want the war ended and expect their president to end it.  Successfully.  Or else.”  Johnson responded this time by relieving of his job and making him President of the World Bank.

At his going-away luncheon, McNamara actually broke down and wept as he spoke of the futile destruction of Vietnam.  Many of those present were shocked by the depth of his sadness and guilt, and appalled that he would condemn the bombing. 

McNamara went on to dedicate himself to the reduction of “absolute poverty” in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but these efforts were often undermined by the ignoring of ecological concerns and by corruption in third world countries. 

It was only in 1995 that he finally publicly denounced the Vietnam War and the part he played in it, when he published a memoir entitled “In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.”  And then in 2003 came Errol Morris’s moving documentary on McNamara, “The Fog of War.”  I will never forget this haunted, tragic figure as he looked into the camera and said that the greatest lesson that he had learned from Vietnam was the need to know one’s enemy, and to empathize with him.  “We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes,” he said.

For his efforts at apology, McNamara was subjected to severe criticism. People wanted to know why he didn’t speak out against the war when he could have influenced policy.  Why did he wait?  I ask myself that question, as well.  Was it out of loyalty to the President?  After all, this was an appointed office, and he served at the will of the President.  Was it because he wanted a cushy job at the World Bank, instead of being ousted from the Washington power structure?  Did he think (probably rightly so) that he would have been labeled a traitor?  Did he perhaps wonder if he would be blamed for not “supporting our boys” when we lost the war, as he knew was inevitable?  I don’t know.  Only he would know.  But I will say this: it would take extraordinary courage to speak out against the war, against the President, against his colleagues, against the Pentagon, against the majority of the American people, who at that time believed that we were justified in being in Vietnam.  Should he have done it?  Yes.  Sixteen thousand American lives had been lost when he resigned as Secretary of Defense–42,000 more were to die before the war was over–and countless Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.  Would that he could have found that extraordinary courage.

Had he done so, would the war have been ended sooner?  No doubt, his words would have had a powerful impact on decision-makers, would have given tremendous leverage to the protest movement.  And he would not have had to drag through his latter years, an object of pity, his too-large clothing hanging round his form, bent and broken, wondering how a good man, a compassionate man, one of the best and the brightest, could have gone so wrong.


Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina!

South Carolina doesn’t know what to do with its governor.  Gov. Mark Sanford disappeared into the ether for several days, and apparently no one–not his staff and not his family–knew where he was.  When queried, his staff said that he “was hiking the Appalachian Trail.”  When he finally appeared, he admitted that he had been in Argentina visiting his mistress, Maria Belen Capur. 

Since then he has made a number of puzzling statements.  He has said, variously, that

–his Argentine mistress is his “soul mate.”

–he wants to patch up his marriage.

–Christian friends have advised him, concerning Capur, “the first step is, you shoot her.  You put a bullet through her head.”  (Apparently he didn’t quote them literally.)

–he has in the past asked permission from his wife, Jenny, to visit Chapur.

–he has had dalliances with other women, but never had sex with them.

–he wants to continue to be governor.

Many of the leading S.C. Republicans and at least 6 newspapers are calling for his resignation.  But there is no law in the state that would require a governor to stand down unless the governor is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”  The state constitution says nothing about resigning if you find your “soul mate” and fall off the deep end. 

So what happened to Sanford, and what should he do?  Let me take a crack at it.

Gov. Sanford was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, who called him “the most boring man I’ve ever met.”  Now Stephen must have met lots of really boring people, so this statement is interesting.  What makes people boring?  (Because no person who is genuinely alive to the world is boring.)  Well, as my gestalt therapist/trainer used to say, “Boredom is keeping the lid on.”  I think Sanford his been doing just that.

So I want to suggest that perhaps the scenario went something like this.  Sanford has for years been going to meetings where people pose and posture.  He withdraws from this.  He has seen lobbyists wheel and deal, and big money win the day most of the time.  He grows cynical.  He and his wife–well, she has been involved with the children.  Perhaps she and Mark have grown apart during the years he has been in public office.  Maybe they no longer make love, or have any erotic connection.  Maybe what they have is an arrangement, a practical arrangement, but not a speck of passion.  So he withdraws from her, as well.  He has four sons–they don’t know him well, for he isn’t home much.  He begins to feel that his life has no integrity, no meaning.  Everything seems flat and tasteless.  He endures this condition for months, then years.  He thinks he will never be vital and alive again, as he once was. There was a time when he had dreams, when life seemed full of possibility, but now he plods ahead, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, day after day.

Then Mark Sanford meets Chapur.  They have a few drinks.  She smiles.  She listens.  She touches his hand.  Both his body and his emotions respond, and he is swept into a new world, a world where the flesh is tied to spirit, and he feels regenerated.  The life force that he thought was gone forever has returned, in spades.  He knows only that he has to be with Chapur.  Nothing else matters. 

He is married, he has children.  So he knows he shouldn’t have sex with Chapur.  And at first he doesn’t.  And then he does.  The strange thing is, it’s not the sex so much that matters.  It’s the woman.  She is his life now.  He continues to see her, because he must. 

But wait a minute!  Each time he leaves Chapur in Argentina or in New York, where she flies to be with him, and returns to South Carolina, he enters the Old World again, the world of the Dead.  He knows what is required.  He goes through the motions.  But his colleagues find him distracted, unfocused.  His aides shepherd him through, but he is increasingly ineffective as a leader.  Colbert finds him truly boring.  He is actually not there at all during the interview.  He is in Argentina. 

So what is he to do? I think he should choose life.  I’m not sure if Chapur is that new life, or just represents it, but he has been dead, and he has a taste of what it means to be alive, and he should follow that leading.  Relationships cannot stay the same when any one of the couple changes–so his wife may change, or they may decide to part.  If they part, it is important that the four sons have both a mother and a father in their lives.  But giving them a father who is dead to the world is not giving them a father at all.  If he does not love their mother, the children will know it even before the parents themselves know it, so exquisitely tuned are they to the emotional life of the household. 

Right now Sanford is torn and confused.  He has to choose.  He may think that his choice is between two women, but this is not the case.  His choice is life, or not-life.  He can be governor–that is, he is able to govern, however poorly.  The question is whether or not he really wants to be governor.  Does this job lead to more life, and that more abundant, as the scripture says?  Or is it cutting off his life and killing his spirit? 

So the choice is not between women, or countries, or jobs, really.  The choice is what gives life and what diminishes it.  Only Mark Sanford knows.  I hope he chooses well.