Eight People I Would Like to Have Lunch With

Over the past several months, I’ve reflected on some of the people, currently alive, who have greatly influenced my life (outside of family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers). I’m talking about people, I don’t know, but I’ve invited into my life through their art or expertise (like authors or musicians).

I started writing down their names. I did my first draft in mid-March 2020 and every once in a while went back and revised the names. I worked with about 25 names along the way and ultimately narrowed the list to eight people I would like to have “lunch” with – either a real lunch or some sort of extended conversation.

In selecting this group, I considered things like:

  1. How long have they been an influence in my life?
  2. Did they send me in new directions on how think?
  3. Did they help me find my own voice (verses adopting their voice)?
  4. How much do I admire them and/or their accomplishments?
  5. How much have I learned from them?
  6. Was that learning of lasting value?
  7. Is there still an opportunity to learn from them in a way that moves my thinking or life forward?

When selecting my top eight people, it wasn’t initially difficult identifying names. What was difficult was narrowing the list to eight people. So, in alphabetical order here I the eight people I would like to have lunch with:

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Ruth Bader-Ginsburg
  • Robert Caro
  • Annie Dillard
  • Bob Dylan
  • Maya Lin
  • Laura Marling
  • George Will

I debated whether to add a short bio or the reason they’ve had such an influence on my life. For a number of reasons, I decided not to do that and leave it at the names — although, I would be happy to answer questions in the comments section about my selections.

There was a number of other people I also considered. Several of these names could easily be interchangeable with some of people in my top eight. In fact, if I was having a “real lunch”, I might now choose a couple of these individuals over a few in my top eight. People on the below list most likely didn’t make the top eight due to something like a shorter time span related to their influence in my life, but I still owe them a debt of gratitude for what I’ve learned from them. I then interspersed the names of a few people that emerged more recently in my purview — people I should hear from more. In no particular order the rest of my “lunch group” would be:

  • Barack Obama
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • Maria Popova
  • Michelle Obama
  • Wendell Berry
  • Lori Gottlieb
  • Charlie Munger
  • Greg Boyd
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Elena Kagan
  • Rana el Kaliouby
  • Dani Shapiro
  • Barbara Benagh
  • John Roberts
  • Anne Tyler
  • Josh Waitzkin

Obviously, it’s only wishful thinking to have lunch with most of these people. But, I have their music, their writing, their leadership, their ideas, and insights into the way they think. Most of all, I have their influence as a way to find my own voice which is the most important thing.

In the comments section, feel free to add your own list, comment on my list, or ask questions.

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Do I Really Have an Opinion?

I speak because I can
To anyone I trust enough to listen,
You speak because you can
To anyone who’ll hear what you say.
Laura Marling(1)

Three years ago my daughter, grandson, and I were sitting in a coffee shop in Bergen, Norway. There was a small group sitting near us. I watched their conversation. One of the individuals would speak and then there would be a pause prior to anyone else commenting. I don’t speak Norwegian, but I do believe they were actually listening to each other.

Reflecting on this led me to two slightly exaggerated observations:

Observation One: How can 40 million people in the USA have nearly identical political views on nearly every subject? (I would have thought this to be statistically impossible.)

Observation Two: If nearly all our political views are synchronized with 40 million other people, how can we, with a straight face, begin a sentence with My opinion is . . .”?

So here are few thoughts about social media and conversations in general.

Three Things I Like

  1. I like listening to people give their own opinion, even if I disagree.
  2. I like a well-reasoned argument even if I have a different opinion.
  3. I like approaching new ideas and arguments in a way that says, “I’m open to changing my mind, expanding my mind, or modifying my position based on better information.”

Four things I Dislike:

  1. I dislike it when people deliberately pass on information to support their agenda when they know it’s not true (or even with two minutes of reflection, they would realize what they are passing along is false or inaccurate).
  2. I dislike it when people attack and label others for expressing their opinion.
  3. I dislike it when people twist another person’s argument in order to drive their own agenda.
  4. I dislike it when people express their opinion publicly with a caveat that they don’t want anyone else to comment. In other words, “You should hear what I say, but I shouldn’t have to hear what you say in response.” (We call it “social media” or “social discourse” for a reason –noting the word “social” has something to do with interaction.)

The late, great senator from New York, Pat Moynihan, said: “In some forty years of government work I have learned one thing for certain, as I have put it, the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.” (2) Better societies, better institutions, and better relationships develop through an interaction of quality ideas.

Questions
Can I listen to understand? A simple test: Can I reiterate the other person’s argument in a way that they would say: “Yes, that is what I’m saying.”? I may still may disagree, but at least I’m disagreeing with their idea and not making up what I believe they are saying.

Am I buying into an agenda? Am I holding nearly identical views to everyone in my political party, faith community, or social circle? Why do I feel I need to do that?

Do I really have opinions? (Or, are they someone else’s opinions?)

.

(1) Laura Marling. I Speak Because I Can. 2010. Record Album.

(2) Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait In Letters Of An American Visionary. Edited by Steven R. Weisman. 2010. Estate of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (Note: It’s important to understand Moynihan is talking about true conservatism and true liberalism, not some of the brands we see today.)

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The Elusive “Life Purpose” and What To Do About It.

Annie Dillard wrote the most concise summary of Time Management I’ve seen: “A schedule defends from chaos and whim.” This remarkable, pithy, seven-word sentence constructs a framework for nearly all time management.

The “schedule defends” against two common enemies of the creative life:
(1) “Chaos” is the external noise and outside demands drawing us away from our purpose and responsibilities.  (e.g. some interruptions and low-priority commitments)
(2) “Whim” is when we follow our own impulses and become distracted from our purpose and responsibilities. (e.g. some television or internet surfing)

Of course, in order to apply this scheduling concept you must know your mission or purpose in life. Or do you? 

The Elusive Personal Mission or Life Purpose
Marion Milner, in A Life of One’s Own, says, “By now I had reviewed all my past attempts to find happiness by following the instructions of mental training experts. Gradually a conclusion began to emerge. Instead of, as always before, assuming that they were right and therefore my inability to reach the promised results must be due to my own weakness, I began to ask whether this really was the way to find what I wanted. I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose . . . So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.”

She follows this with, “At that time I could not understand at all that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purposes.”

This 1934 book suggests some fascinating things. Maybe life is “too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose”. And maybe life is a “gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.” What she says makes sense! And, when you think about it, what doesn’t make sense is the assumption that at one point in life we can decide, in detail, what the rest of our life (or even the next few months) should look like. That somehow our past self, at a certain point in time, knows more than our present or future self. We should not guide our lives exclusively by these “preconceived purposes”, but by ongoing growth and discovery of our purposes.

We Know Some Things
This doesn’t mean we wander carelessly or jump from goal to goal. We know enough about life to invest our time effectively. We also know what constitutes time-wasters. We just don’t want to lock ourselves into a particular course of action so that we shut down growth and discovery by ignoring context and accumulated wisdom. So we schedule what we do know to be valuable and discard the mediocre. This prevents “chaos and whim” from overtaking our lives while, at the same time, remaining open to the future.

Beware of This Paradox
Milner, in one of her other books, An Experiment in Leisure, has an interesting discussion about self-sacrifice and concludes:

And surely this question was most relevant to my problem of how to spend my leisure. If this desire to sacrifice my own wants was so strong, I was faced with the paradox that perhaps what I wanted most to do was not to do what I most wanted to do. I knew many people of whom this seemed true, as soon as they had a moment to themselves free from obligations, they would rush off to find another obligation, someone else or something else to sacrifice their lives to. Was this morbid? I could not tell, but certainly I noticed that these same people very often had recurrent periods of physical illness when they were forced to attend to themselves, to ‘mind their own business’. (Emphasis Mine)

We say we are too busy. We become frustrated because we believe others sabotage our goals. We don’t use the word “powerless”, but we live as if we are unable, for whatever reason, to pursue a creative life. In fact, Milner says, people actually become ill if they are “forced to attend to themselves” and “mind their own business”. Even if we have an open window of time (an hour, an afternoon, a partial weekend), we fill this time with something else instead of what we really want to do. We “sacrifice” our life unnecessarily because, if we are honest with ourselves, — what we wanted most to do was not to do what we most wanted to do.

What do you most want to do? (Besides not doing what you most want to do.) Scheduling even small blocks of time for your creative life will defend against “chaos and whim” and help you discover your purposes in life — or you’ll at least enjoy your life while you “learn to have no purposes”.

.

The Writing Life. 1989. Annie Dillard. HarperCollins Publishers.

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge.

An Experiment in Leisure. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1937. The estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge.

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This Land is Your Land

When I was child, we used to sing This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie.

This land is your land, this land is my land.
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters
This land as made for you and me.

The song caught my attention again about six months ago. I began noticing the imagery: “As I was walking that ribbon of highway.” my mind traveled back to my childhood of riding down two lane highways to visit grandparents. I remember seeing those “ribbons” cutting through the rolling farmland. (Of course this took place in a smoke-filled car, AM Radio, parental bickering, extreme boredom, and an occasional bout of car sickness.)

As I further reflected on this song, I began to notice Guthrie’s alliteration:

I roamed and I rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts

Then, what fascinated me was his progression of ideas. It seems to go from a general declaration that “This land is your land, this land is my land” to his own experiential conclusion as he “was walking” that “This land was made for you and me.” The progression continues. He was no longer directing his own journey by walking – he was compelled to continue: “I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps”. When he did that, all nature spoke:

While all around me, a voice was sounding
This land was a made for you and me.

A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

In the early versions of the song, Guthrie included other lyrics. It seems to maintain a tension: This magnificent, beautiful land belongs to all of us and yet no longer experienced by everyone because of the No Trespassing Signs and the hungry and alienated people.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I listened to this, my mind drifted to other forms of alienation. I thought about Colin Kaepernick who made a thoughtful, powerful, and peaceful statement by kneeling at the national anthem. So, I wrote my own verse of “This Land is Your Land” in the spirit of Woody Guthrie and in honor of Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick’s protest:

We sang the anthem, a man was kneeling.
He was rejected for speaking freedom.
As he was silenced, I began to wonder
Is this land still made for you and me
?

About three days after the protests began, someone on Social Media said something like, “Enough with the protests, let’s move on!” But, “Let’s move on” is a major part of the problem. I say, “Enough with the just moving on — let’s stop, listen, and find change.”

This land doesn’t only belong to some of us. This land belongs to all of us. Until we can say “this land is your land”, I don’t think we have any business saying, “this land is my land”.

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Spiritual Guides and Independent Thinking

If I’d lived my life by what others were thinkin’, the heart inside me would’ve died.
But I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity,
Someone had to reach for the risin’ star
I guess it was up to me.
(Bob Dylan)*

In the Prologue to the Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila notes her “obedience” to her spiritual guides and the enabling power of this obedience to write something as enduring as the Interior Castle.

The idea of “spiritual obedience” or similar types of obedience can and should cause us to recoil. We, rightly, want to maintain our independent thinking and action. The term “obedience” suggests a surrender of our independent will to someone else, a group, an institution, or an agenda. That’s dangerous! Our life is not an experiment for incompetent and/or unsupervised “spiritual guides”.

Teresa writes in other portions of the Interior Castle about being highly selective in whom she “listened” to. Our well-being usually requires some sort of guidance and direction. Without guidance, we can continue repeating the same mistakes for decades or unthinkingly jump on board with the latest clever idea we’ve heard. If we don’t have reliable guides we can also fall into a different type of “blind obedience” — enculturation. We believe we’re going our own way, but we’re going everyone else’s way.

I recently listened to therapist Lori Gottlieb (Tim Ferris and other podcasts) describing the problem of finding guidance or redirection in life without a therapist (or some alternative). She explains that when we rely on family and friends, they may tell us what we want to hear or encourage us to change what serves their own interest. We need a healthy “outside voices” to thrive. Francis Bacon indicated the same thing when he said: “Books speak plain when counselors blanch.” Good books and good guides do not change their insights based on our whims or have an agenda for our lives.

A quality guide, in any walk of life, helps us find our own voice, our own health, our own power and autonomy, and our own vision. Warren Bennis captured this delicate balance of merging guidance with independent thinking in describing television producer Norman Lear’s approach to vision and leadership. He said, “There are four steps in the process behind Norman Lear’s success in mastering the context: (1) becoming self-expressive; (2) listening to the inner voice; (3) learning from the right mentors; and (4) giving oneself over to a guiding vision.” ** This combination of listening to self, having the right mentors, and “giving” oneself to a guiding vision is what we want to capture.

Without “obedience” to her spiritual guides, Teresa never writes The Interior Castle. Without discernment, listening to her own inner voice, having her own vision, and carefully selecting her guides, she doesn’t become the person that can write a book like the Interior Castle.

*Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-1985 (p. 371). Knoff Publishing.

**Bennis. On Becoming a Leader (p. 29). Perseus Book Group-A. Kindle Edition.

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