Persona

My son once told me, as he was about to play a high school hockey game, that the coach insisted that the players put on “a game face” before they left the locker room. Moreover, they were coached to never show any signs of pain after a hard board check. He said the coach claimed that showing pain would undesirably increase their opponents’ confidence.

A prison guard I knew years ago acted like John Wayne while on duty, but was much more “himself” when participating as a volunteer doing yard work on weekends. One of my friends consistently exudes a kind of “sicky-sweet” atmosphere when entertaining guests, but she acts rather mean and even rude when she complains about some annoying habit of her husband. In New Hampshire, where political candidates can be close up available, I once had a 5-minute one-on-one chat with a presidential hopeful. He seemed very down-to-earth, genuinely engaged, when suddenly someone came rushing by and told him, “We got the feed!” I was caught off guard because of my naivety; I didn’t realize how important, (or even what) the feed was. But once the precious TV camera with its red light lit pointed at him, his mask instantly slapped into place; Mr. Future President began smiling from ear to ear, grabbing hands to shake, spouting trite phrases and thanking people for God knows what. It was a good thing for his campaign that the camera moved off of me, because my facial expression would’ve been saying, “Where the hell did he go?”

Apparently we sometimes carry what psychologists call a persona, a kind of mask intended for the outer world to see while observing us. The term can also apply to a similar aura we tend to assign or project onto other people based on our expectations of them. For example, when approaching the guard shack of a military base, we really wouldn’t expect the Marine standing at attention there to slap us on the back and say “Hey – how ya doin’ Buddy?” Even though he might be a regular Joe, we’ve been condition to be aware of the important security responsibility people in his position have. Hence we expect him to be formal and to the point. Each time we encounter such a guard, we reinforce that persona in our memory and eventually no longer see him as a person, but only as a soldier.exaggerated sunglasses

It’s useful in the quest for authenticity to become aware of when and why persona tendencies manifest, since doing so might assist in identifying barriers to wholeness. The mask we wear can be useful when it communicates for us, encouraging efficiency in certain public roles. It may protect us at certain times when we need a thicker outer shell. But it can also become problematic if a persona habitually replaces the genuine person. If there is a difference between the person and his or her persona, it becomes difficult for people to relate to them.

Conversely, if we exercise the skill of becoming aware of any habitual masks that we might use as we go about presenting ourselves to others, we can figure out what motivates us to do so. Aware of being aware, we can decide to become more genuine. Jesus’ use of the word truth (Aletheia; literally: without veil ) in the Gospel of John is worthy of reflection when considering the role of our persona: “. . . you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV)

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At Sea with a Paddle

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The first season of kayaking was serene, partly because of my ignorance about small boat safety on the ocean. Paddling out from shore with the sunset producing its captivating sky coloring, one island after another moving astern so effortlessly in the flat calm water, I eventually found myself alone. The silence was literally golden at that time of day. No power boats in sight, no wind for sailing, too far from shore to hear road noise, I could become aware of where I was and my thoughts turned to the water itself. It seemed cold. As the sky faded, the water too was getting dark. For the first time since leaving shore I became aware of the tide moving and the depth of the water beneath me, now well over 100 feet.

Two miles behind, the shore near my home was visible with houses lights beckoning the dinner hour. Finally, as the night replaced afternoon, it occurred to me that no one knew where I was. And since I had no radio, no phone, no charts, no compass, no knowledge of how to re-enter a capsized kayak, it made no sense to be so far out. Wondering how I had let myself get into this position, I turned toward home, paddling gingerly to keep the boat upright. The breeze on my face was cool now, and the entire scene was feeling substantially less friendly than it had earlier. The tide was not especially strong, but it seemed to be resisting my motion; I wondered if my paddle strokes were making enough progress.

These concerns had not grown into anything close to panic but they did cause a definite “edginess” as the superimposition of one thought after another began to convince me that it would be wise to sign up for a kayaking safety training before the short summer passed. Then the edginess turned to panic.

The monster must have sneaked up behind me after I turned toward shore. I had no warning. An enormous thud and loud splash occurred close behind me, in that kayakers’ blind spot where in order to see, turning the boat is required. It sounded as if a rock the size of a bathtub had dropped from the sky. By the time I got the bow around far enough to look, it was very quiet, except for the pounding noise of my heart. The only evidence of the event was a rapidly expanding series of large ripples.

Experiences like that are good for us humans. At least they seem good after the fact. The marine creature, probably a seal, was letting me know who called that particular latitude and longitude home. Since there are no elephant seals in the Atlantic, he didn’t weigh tons after all. He was more likely in the range of my own 200 pounds. Being in a heightened state of awareness from just having taken inventory of my paltry safety preparations, my ‘flight or fight’ response registered him as angry giant rather than playful water dog as I have since come to recognize. I later thought to myself, “I wonder what they think about humans during their times of relaxation out on those calm shoals?

When back on shore a half hour later, the encounter with the seal was remembered as the highlight of the trip. The solitude and the radiant sunset were valuable to be sure. But thanks to that assertive seal, the ocean took on a new relationship characteristic for me. I can’t swim like a seal. I can’t fly for miles over the water like sea birds do so easily. Perhaps the solitude was an important prerequisite to the wider experience that evening. Exercise, sunsets, looking at a clear moon, observing wildlife of all kinds each can remind us of life’s greater perspective. Those spontaneous experiences can ignite the realm of spirit. Not at all religious, it is that spirit within,  the one that relegates one’s ego to a properly subordinate status and position.

All boat treks from that harbor cross that territory. When in a kayak there, I now can’t go by without thinking of, appreciating, and hoping to greet that vivacious, healthy and personally instructive sea mammal.

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View From On High

View From Google Earth

Some people prefer aisle seats when they are traveling by air. There’s more leg room and getting out is much easier when no one else is required to make room.

I prefer the window seats. My fascination with the view from on high started from listening to my dad tell stories describing the experience of being an airline passenger. He reported that while you are speeding along at hundreds of miles per hour the overall landscape view appears to be motionless. He also offered the solution to this paradox by lining up the edge of the wing with something on the ground and compare the speed of that changing line with a fast moving vehicle. I couldn’t wait to get a chance to see that for myself.

Maybe that’s where the pull of the window seat came from; it’s buried in my subconscious mind even though the long awaited test was performed and verified over 60 years ago.

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What I see now is maps without political demarcations. Montreal, Quebec looks a lot like Burlington, VT.  It isn’t obvious from afar that they speak different languages and use different road sign conventions. Instead they look alike; it appears as if the people there have a lot in common.  The clouds, the rivers, the color of the fields are the same.

Changing perspectives once in a while is a healthy act. Especially if doing so replaces habitual perceptions with higher reality and makes clear the way things really are.

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Heaven is Now

If heaven is now, why then is there so much trouble?

Trouble, you say; what trouble? Well, for one, I recently learned that there is some kind of epidemic, mainly in Uganda, where kids are slipping into a kind of seizure and nod off as if in a trance. Millions of kids are somehow being infected with this nodding disease causing parents there to be living in horror. Surely heaven is better than that.

Most people treat heaven as the future. We live here in a flawed world, we die, and we suddenly wake up in heaven. Today we know the world can be difficult; no one has to look very far to find evidence of evil and travail. Surely a mind-picture of a pleasant place with no tears and no hardships to follow this difficult life is one way to cope. Some religions – most religions – use such a future-based vision as incentive: just do well and you’ll get in. (Jesus did not offer heaven as such a carrot, but people in many Christian denominations seem to act as if he did.)

Another common misconception seems to be that society is evolving to a constantly improved status. We are working to get it right, they think. That is, in just a hundred years or two, more people will be educated, catch the Golden Rule vision, be nicer to each other, enjoy benefits from ever-increasing technology and share all around. It probably seemed that way to people after World War I too, but when the best-educated nation on Earth unleashed a violent torrent of destruction on its European neighbors, that concept proved to be flawed. It too needs to be rethought.

But if history is to be anything but meaningless, if we are to expect a more purposeful result than just a smoking pile of ashes at the end of time, there must be some sort of heaven to aim for. But that heaven is now.

Imagine a top-notch medical rescue team being “inserted” into Uganda. People equipped with knowledge and tools – “weapons” to combat the frightening nodding disease. As this medical team hunkers down, it establishes some safe zones and begins to learn what kind of bacteria is causing the disease, where this bacteria lives and what feeds it. Millions of people are still being affected, but more and more are not! How exciting; a breakthrough or two.  What’s more, the few rescued folks who are no longer being adversely affected are finding ways to communicate to others what they in turn can do to create and maintain their own safe zones.

Now imagine critics coming into this situation after a time. These folks observe and want to see the nodding disease wiped out, but it is still rampant across most of Uganda. Yes, but is the medical team there now? Is the medical team learning how to, and teaching others how to, restore the life there to a healthy standard? Well . . .   ya.

Okay. There you have a symbol of how heaven is now. Heaven later is going to be complete; whole. The eternal heaven will completely eradicate the real suffering and evil, but the heaven now is a step in that direction. Is it perfect? No. Can we make it perfect over time? No, we can’t, but the one who created life itself can and  will.

When a chess player moves during an early turn, the game is not won. But the plan could be in place to insure victory. The opponent could still have a few turns remaining without realizing he is not going to win. It’s over before it’s over. It’s now and it’s in the future. It looks different then, as does heaven, but it’s also now.

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Akron Woods – Orientation

 

 It was the 5th grade in Salisbury, Massachusetts in September 1954. My parents announced that we were relocating to Kent Ohio, a small town near Akron, the tire-making capital of the US.

Within weeks I was torn from my classmates with whom I had shared a lifelong (well, 48 months to that point) friendship, and painfully said goodbye to my teacher, a young red-head (she looked exactly like Teresa Brewer) with whom I had just fallen in love. A few days later, I found myself as a “new kid” unfamiliar in every setting – school, church and, by winter, the Boy Scouts Troop 210. Feeling lonely and unconnected, I signed up for a winter log cabin retreat in the Akron woods with 30 other scouts and 5 adult leaders.

On Saturday afternoon of that cold weekend, the Scout Master scheduled an outdoor orientation contest. It was designed to teach us map-reading, distance-measuring and compass skills. He handed out a list of instructions which contained wilderness vocabulary and useful landmarks. He then split us up into four competing groups of 7 or 8 kids each and discharged us to the wild on our own.

The group to which I was assigned had 8 kids between 10 to 14 years old. I was 11. The oldest (and tallest) boy in our group, obviously popular, became our accepted leader. None of the kids questioned his decisions as he deciphered the list of instructions. Instead, oblivious to its distance and bearing details, they scrambled along in the ankle-deep snow to keep up with the leader as he raced through the instructions. The younger (and less fit) kids trundled along behind the group complaining about the cold snow that was creeping into their oversized overshoes. I listened to the older boy’s rationale as he checked off each clue, step by step. He performed the tasks well in my opinion, up to a point at which he was required to pace off a 50-yard distance.

That became a moment of truth.

The group was off course. The impatient leader, in his hurry, stumbled in the deep snow more than once as he paced off the 50-yard instruction. The resulting error skewed his next compass aim, pointing us toward a birch tree that was not on the list. The correct birch tree, just out of sight, looked very similar but was several compass degrees to the right. We could not find any more landmarks because they were all linked to the birch tree we missed. We soon realized that we were lost. Running out of options, the self-appointed leader suggested we accept what we had for the desired clues and keep going.

Trusting the big kid, the other scouts faithfully followed the leader. Since they had allowed him to do all the mental work along the way, they now had no idea of how to troubleshoot the flawed clue situation on their own. The younger kids, cold and embracing their negativity more than ever, also conformed just to keep moving toward any conclusion of what they considered to be a miserable exercise from the beginning.

As we started off into a random direction, I spoke up. My logic was: unless we figured out what had gone wrong, it would be unlikely that we could get back on track. Conceding that it would indeed cost us time, I petitioned the group to nevertheless go back and restart from the last trusted position.

As you can probably guess from my description of the group, the idea was quickly voted down. Tall Boy’sreputation had been challenged and at age 14, he lacked the ego authenticity to own an error. He surmised that it was not him but the instruction list that was inaccurate. The Follow-the-Leader scouts, having abdicated their own responsibility to understand the problem and its range of solutions, became an insecure committee. They were a majority, rejecting any idea that did not align with the group as led. The Cold Kids complained that it was getting dark and we should just quit, head back to the warm cabin and become sure losers.

I asked the leader if I could use the compass, going back to pace off the 50-yard task a second time. He agreed, but while I was re-stepping that link, the group’s impatience sent them marching off without me. I found the other birch tree and located the rock, which buoyed my confidence. I shouted for them to come back and join my trail. Locked in the grip of false confidence, where the leader’s determination was ratified by an ignorant majority and then, in turn, served the majority it’s need for security, they declined. I suppose the group had by now developed some skeptical thoughts about this kid from New England who had the audacity to leave the safety of the herd to pursue a quality result. Besides, they were comfortable with Tall Boy’s decision because, after all, it was affirmed by 7 of the 8 scouts which was clearly a mandate.

Since I was unfamiliar the adults, I was not at all sure that my solo work would be recognized or even accepted at the finish line, but it was. Fortunately the last step on the instruction revealed a cached, four-sided trinket as proof that the accurate destination had been reached. The exercise was designed to confirm that if the team had accomplished every skill in the competition they could produce the trinket. It would prove completion of all the steps for them and gain respect for quality from all who participated. At the conclusion of the event, when the Scout Master asked if anyone could identify this unusual piece of jewelry, our team won and was recognized for accomplishing the key lessons required to successfully reach the goal.

It’s a wonder that I wasn’t hated by my teammates, who accepted my contribution with grace. The experience helped me shed the newcomer status in the troop and gave alert to the kids who had trusted the majority without thinking on their own. It also set a permanent caution in my heart to be skeptical about the popular perception that a majority is always right.

Henrik Ibsen, in his famous 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, created a character who’s role is to help the reader wonder if the majority does always rule. His point: it is an age-old lie that the majority is always right! In fact, he asserts via the character’s lines that the majority is usually wrong!

At 11 years old, philosophy was not my concern. However, having watched the process of decision-making on so many boards and committees over the years since, I often wished that more of those members had been with us in that cold Akron wood in 1954.

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Integrity

Integrity verses Honesty

When the virtue integrity is mentioned, the concept of honesty often comes to mind. However, integrity and honesty are quite different.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines integrity as “being of sound moral principal; state of being complete, unbroken.” A person’s integrity reflects his or her soundness of mind and soul.

The US Navy uses the term integrity to describe the seaworthiness of a ship. A vessel with questionable integrity would be at risk in a rough sea. Its hull may not be expected to hold up to a constant pounding of waves, or for some other reason it might lack enough integrity to keep seawater out. A ship with integrity is completely ready for sea.

Honesty is a good word too. People who are honest refrain from deception. They are more forthright in relationships, less apt to cut corners or conform just to be politically correct. Honesty is a personal character trait that is part of one’s reputation. It is a trait that wears well on others even in the case where hearing the truth is painful. Using a military example again, the Navy demonstrates its value for honesty at commissioning ceremonies when it asks its prospective leaders to take the oath , “An officer will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those that do.”

Although honesty is not synonymous with integrity, its absence certainly indicates a lack of integrity. If a person has a reputation of choosing to lie, cheat or steal, that person almost always lacks some type of integrity. When someone demonstrates that they cannot be trusted their dishonest behavior usually reflects a history of unresolved heart wounds. It can be assumed that unless and until such a person engages in a process of facing that history, separating what was true from what was untrue around the circumstances at the source of those wounds, that person will not fare well in the storms of life any more than a weakly built ship would stand the storms of sea.

Integrity: the personal state wholeness; complete. Being strong enough to be honest, open and candid regardless of the temporary cost.

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Ocean Craft Comparison

While paddling home from work, my phone rang.

The seven-word sentence above would cause most people in my generation to pause in order to weigh exactly what is being said. People 30-years old and younger simply would not find anything unusual in it.

Since salt water is really tough on cellphones, I decided to grab onto an unused mooring buoy to keep my kayak from going out to sea while I put down my paddle, got my hands dry and answered.

The caller was a friend from New Hampshire with whom I quickly got into an enjoyable conversation. After a long day in the sun and with no immediate schedule I was quite content to just lay back and chat. The call was so engrossing that I never saw the shiny black, 80′ yacht as it approached the mooring from behind me. Apparently the skipper of that ostentatious beauty had gained permission from harbor control to tie up on the one buoy among the dozens of empty buoys around there that I had latched onto. My call was interrupted by a British accent hovering about 15 feet above me with a long boat pole at the ready.

I apologized to my NH friend, hung up, put my phone back into its Zip-Lock bag, apologized to my new British acquaintance for the inconvenience of causing him to tread water after such a long ocean crossing, and paddled off the buoy resuming the commute home.

As I departed, looking back, I noticed the flag of royalty and a British home port spelled out on her stern. Without knowing what she had for furnishings and electronics down below, I estimated the market value of this stunning ship to be over a million dollars -more likely over a million pounds. I wondered sincerely if the crew of such a treasure would have noticed the seals that had greeted me as I paddled by harbor ledges on my way in. The seals pay more attention to kayaks than to large vessels because they know kayaks can come much closer to them.

I wondered if I should have invited myself on board during the exchange at the buoy. Those British seafaring folks would likely have been interested in sharing common stories. After all, I conned ships about that size across the oceans during my Navy years; and I have some interesting stories to embellish too. One they would like was about a visit aboard a Royal Navy ship, back in Hong Kong when it was still a British Crown Colony. Ah, but these folks were undoubtedly tired, and about to honor the sun’s position over the yardarm with their Beefeater custom. Besides, an old guy with a sunburned face, clutching a harbor buoy at water level probably looked to them much like a vagrant street person would look to an arriving airport traveler. They mightn’t have recognized the potential attractiveness of the acquaintance. Especially since security aboard royal assets like that would have been tight.

Wondering what life was like on such a prestigious platform, I asked myself that day, “Am I better off performing my humble job, teaching visitors about the ocean, paddling to and from work? Or, should I aspire to the status of sailing ’round the world on a celebrity yacht like that?” At the coming time when this life is over, glancing back through the decades, what would the lasting differences look like?

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