Hello Fear, Let’s Take on This New Year Together!

FeetThe year I decided to say goodbye to the shores of my beloved Trinidad and Tobago to pursue graduate education in the United States, “Fear” decided she was coming too. Though I tried to shake her loose, she resisted. “What are you  thinking, girl?” she asked. “Like  for real? Think girl!  Are you really  prepared to trade in your love of doubles, roti, corn soup, steelpan, sunshine, and just about anything Trini, for American food and smog and snow?”Then she asked more worrisome  questions: What if your money runs out? What if your Trini education has not adequately prepared you to succeed in the US academy? What if you are not able to cultivate a warm circle of friends to help you face the cold North American clime (literal or figurative)? What if……? What if…..? Fear nagged.

But even though my confidence was shaky, I packed up my two suitcases and the little money I had saved from selling everything I owned–everything, that is, except for what was in those two suitcases, and I boarded the plane to Michigan with Fear as an unshakeable companion.

Yet, when I think back on it, I recognize that I did own something far more precious than anything I had managed to squeeze into those suitcases. What I owned was a dream to do what no one in my immediate family had yet done –pursue higher education. What I owned was a determination to lay it all on the line in pursuit of a compelling life vision. The possibility of success lured me forward, even as Fear of failure threatened to slow my steps. Yet channeling the fierce spirit of my Caribbean ancestry, I was determined that “dis sista” was not going down without a fight! And if you are thinking, “Well, I wish I had your courage and confidence”, I’m just going to keep it real. On far too many days, it was all an act; I was faking it to make it.

Truth be told, it was a flickering confidence, burning brightly one minute and then almost about to go out the next when challenges presented themselves–-when the amount I owed on my student account was more than I could pay, when I got tired of wearing the one coat I could afford to get at the discount store, when I stopped to think about the long road ahead and my dwindling bank account, I was afraid. And although I have stood at quite a few crossroads of major decisions in my life since then, I recognize that FEAR remained within arms length.

Would or Should? So, what would you do if you were not afraid? The first time someone put this question to me, it was not difficult to rattle off a list of things right away—learn to scuba dive, ride a motorcycle, or sky dive, or perhaps travel the world, mountain climb etc. etc. Yes! I do have that adventurer’s spirit. However, as I think back on that encounter now, I have a more nuanced understanding of that question and my response. First off, though I would certainly bask in the thrill of saying: “Ta dah, done it!” to any one of these bucket list items, I sense that for me at least it would be a shallow victory—there are more pressing concerns that weigh on my mind—I have bigger fish to fry. Secondly, for some crazy ventures (which will remain unnamed) that I almost attempted, and for which I am glad my parents knew nothing about, I remain grateful for the fear that knit that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach that kept me up at night, that prodded and provoked me to recognize my foolishness and change course.

But what if instead of being asked about what we “would do”, we were asked the more meaningful question: “what should we do EVEN if we are afraid? By should, I am suggesting what I believe to be a fundamental truth of life, that each person is called to walk road finalpaths that are custom designed for them. It is your path to walk, whether it is to write that book, marry that person, leave that dead-end relationship, move to a different city or country, take that new job or even the alternative, turn down that dream job in favor of a passionate calling. Whatever it is! It is YOUR path to take given who you are, and the gifts you have been given to share with the world. Yet, it is often at these junctures that we are most fearful of failure and of going against the grain, turning off the well-trodden path taken by so many others rather than doing what Robert Frost suggested: “ Two roads diverged in the wood, and I–I took the one less travelled by.”

Friend or Foe? As I reflect on my own life journey, I recognize that Fear is indeed like that annoying friend who no matter how you try to shake her loose refuses to leave your side. From the first day I stood before a class of college students many of whom were much older than I was, through leaving the shores of my beloved homeland, through walking down the aisle to say “I do”, to holding a newborn baby in my arms—I was shaking down to my cotton underwear! BUT I kept on putting one foot in front of the other as I walked on.

If you are waiting to be less afraid to make that big move this year to high tail it out of your current situation with a confident “Adios, amigos!” in pursuit of your vision of a preferred future, well then girlfriend, you may be waiting for a long, long time. In an inspiring video, entitled How to get over your fear of failure, motivational guru and coach Tony Robbins urges us instead to train our minds to think: “I can be fearful, but I can do it anyway”. Similarly, in the book Act like a Leader, Think like a Leader,  the author presents a paradoxical truth that no amount of thinking will allow us to get past the nettlesome companion of fear. Ironically, the only way to face your fear effectively is to take her along for the journey.

Crippling or Motivating? Fear can cripple you or it can motivate you to advance towards your dreams —the choice is yours. Some years ago, my husband and I faced a difficult decision. Should he continue with the world’s largest consulting firm which paid mucho dinero, but which came with an attached puppet string that pulled him on planes, trains and automobiles here, there and everywhere? Or should he say “Hasta la vista, baby!” and launch out on his own–chart a course towards having his own business? There was a moment of great pause. Actually, who am I kidding? There were MOMENTS of great pauses. Are we crazy to even be considering this? What about the risks? We have kids to put through college! So many fears!!! The lure of a stable paycheck to which we had set our GPS was tempting—it threatened to cripple our movement towards a different path. Yet, as a financial consultant to others, he realized that staying in the firm’s safety zone in uncertain economic times would lock him out of his future earning potential on his own terms. But more importantly, he was driven by a desire for a better quality of life–more time with the kids and me, and to do more than his parents had done—to work towards a richer legacy than a stable pension plan. The fear of what could be lost if we did not make this move outweighed the fears we had about the loss of that paycheck—fear was a motivating agent.

I confess, that even now, after making that and other major life decisions together over the years, there are still moments of uncertainty and lingering questions. Did we do the IMG_7032right thing? Can we really make it? Yet, it is in the presence of this troublesome companion–fear–but armed with a growing confidence that we are determined to keep on walking courageously in fulfillment of our purpose and calling. And here is what we are discovering: every day, we make that choice –it is a choice that is positioning us well to experience the gift of joyful living. And it is wonderful!

So as you stand on the brink of this new year, what is your resolution? What should you do even if you are afraid? I know you’ve thought about it. Well? What are you going to do? My advice: Go ahead and DO it! Prepare yourself to begin walking that road even if you are afraid!

I would love to hear your personal story or thoughts of wanting to or facing fear head on. What lessons are these experiences teaching you?

“Nah! Not today!”–Leading Courageous Conversations

 

Kathy- SpeakingFew people are willing to start courageous conversations. Now, I am not referring to
the standard “Well, I’m jus’ gonna’ give him a piece of my mind!” Yeah, yeah, those conversations do take courage.  But the conversations of which I am writing require a level of relational transparency that is becoming sadly too rare. Let’s be real for a minute, how often is the friend who asks:” “Now, I want your honest opinion, how do I……?” really interested in your honest opinion?  My experience is NOT often! That’s why it takes courage to step out from the comforting limb of evasion, of half-truths, or outright lies to share a hard truth. After all, not many of us are able to take critical feedback and not despise the messenger. Ask me how I know.

I can still remember the day, about twenty years ago, when a close friend and mentor told me a hard truth about myself. It was unflattering, hurtful even, and in that moment I did what any self-respecting person would do. I launched a three-pronged counter attack. Ha!! First, I told him something bad about himself too. Then I called him a liar. “Untrue!” I said. Then, I resolved right then and there that the friendship was officially over (smh).  Yes! I know, not one of my finest moment! Shucks, I was ashamed, and embarrassed and very, VERY angry with him.

Kathy-1Yet, today, as I stand at the 50th mile mark of my life journey, and I reflect on that moment, I think now about the courage it must have taken for him to begin that conversation and risk my displeasure–to share a truth that was necessary for me to know to continue to improve. (Side note here, in case you are wondering, we are still close friends). Moreover, I now recognize growing in me a fierce determination to also take on courageous conversations.

Just so you know, it is not because I have a secret yearning for martyrdom or a quest to achieve wonder woman status. (Though, her suit is kinda cute, especially the cape. Don’t ya think?) Rather, at this juncture of my life journey, I think of it as a responsibility—a calling if you will to be a truth sayer, to care less about what others think of me, and more about what I think of myself–to walk firmly in my convictions. And even though, I will confess, there are still too many times when confronted with the task of speaking up, that I have hesitated, rethought, analyzed, re-analyzed some more, and eventually simply walked away in silence, each day that I continue to live, I challenge myself to fight against that beguiling sense of comfort.

In an age of “fake news” and insincere “like” clicks or “beautiful” comment posts, I remain convinced of the necessity of courageous conversations.

Courageous Conversations Honor Self: It is easier to advocate for others when such advocacy comes in the form of compliments and glowing letters of recommendations. Everyone loves praise. How, much tougher it is to advocate for others through critical feedback that can be unflattering, or even unwelcome! How very difficult it can be to say “no” in a crowd of “yeses”! To understand that in taking a position, you will perhaps be viewed, as “hard” “inflexible” and even in my case, considered “unchristian”. It is in these moments that I remind myself that advocacy for affirmation is merely self-promotion.

For the many times, I have made the choice to travel the lonely road of “The Voice of the Opposition”, there have been moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. Yet, I remain convinced that the best contributions we can make in this life is to speak and act from the perspective of our deeply held convictions. That being said, we should not do so from a place of brutish recalcitrance. Rather, we should speak from an emerging position that requires us to critically interrogate our views as we continue to become intelligently informed and to listen to perspectives that differ from ours. Even as we stand firm in our truths, it should birth in us the ability to recognize and respect the rights of others to stand in their own truth. In sum, the experiences along our individual life journey is crafting in each of us a perspective that is distinctively our own. When I am true to my convictions, whether right or wrong, I am making a contribution that is branded as uniquely me! To deny that is to live inauthentically and to dishonor the gift of my presence in this world.

 Courageous Conversations Advance OthersA few years ago a colleague, who I came to know through my professional circle, came to seek my counsel. She was disappointed that once again she had ben overlooked for a senior level leadership position at her institution. Having observed her for some time though from a distance, I knew exactly what part of the problem was. Though she did possess practical leadership skills, she lacked the professional presence and finesse that could secure her a C-suite position. Yet, in spite of years at her place of employment, and a host of mentors, no one had been courageous enough to have that conversation with her, to provide her with necessary resources for her leadership development. I wondered why. But then again, perhaps they had, and she had not been ready to receive it, or perhaps the timing was bad or the approach was wrong? Though she had come to me looking for comfort, empathy even, I recognized the moment for what it was—an opportunity to start a brave conversation that perhaps she would find embarrassing, and yet it was necessary to advance her along her career path. And though I was fully aware that I was about to make her uncomfortable, to take on the inevitable risk of being disliked, misunderstood, or even unfriended, I chose my tone carefully and began the hard conversation…

Courageous Conversations are Necessary to the Cause:  Moving to the United States from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, I have come to a new construction of what it means to be a Black person in this context.  Existing and working in predominantly White spaces has positioned me and others like me to speak up for issues that often get overlooked, because the context is informed by a predominant majority perspective that threatens to marginalize us. It is a threat that is strengthened when we choose to remain silent. For me then, the iconic presence of Rosa Parks is a commanding symbol of courage—courage that refuses to acquiesce in the face of injustice. “Nah! Not today! I will not give up my seat!”

Whatever the cause, the counterattack begins through opposition. It is the lone voice that shouts aloud about injustices that are whispered in hushed tones; it is the lone voice that is not afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions: “And why were no Diversity_Matters-coverpeople of color invited to the event? Recruited for the position? Received the award? Offered a seat at the table? Why are there no women in the top leadership positions? How were candidates recruited, selected? What are we doing to address these inequities? Why? What? How?

Though my cause may be different from yours, the advancement of work against systemic injustices requires a conversation starter. It requires someone who is brave enough to voice the concern that unapologetically challenges the normative–and lets the chips fall where they may.

Now that kind of courage does not come easily. In fact, every time I have started one of these conversations with students, colleagues, relatives, friends or even in my scholarship around the topic of diversity and inclusion, I have done so in spite of my fears. No, it is not easy, but it is indeed necessary. And whether we emerge from such conversations on the winning or losing side is not really the point. The point is: “Am I? Are you courageous enough to walk in your convictions—to make a mark that is distinctively you– to speak your truth even though your voice is quivering?” That is the kind of courage that Harper Lee defines as “real courage” ….It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

So, bring on the courageous conversations! Why? Well, because at 50 and counting I have earned both the right and the responsibility to lead such conversations  And come to think of it now, maybe I will get that cape after all…

 

Out of Our Poverty

Poverty of SpiritI am not a very nice person. It’s only taken me some forty-something years to admit this outright! Perhaps, if you are reading this and know me, you are thinking, “Like, duh! No surprise there!” On the other hand, if you are thinking: “Okay girl, enough with the false modesty!” let me assure you, this is not some suave attempt to self-promote and do a bait and switch. It’s the truth. At the same time, I will admit that with every fiber of my being I aim to live contrary to this truth–to be intentional in becoming a person who radiates a beauty that comes  from a  cultivated spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control.

But back to the “not nice” part, here is a case in point. I was about 9 years old (Yes, I said 9). It was Friday spelling test, and we had exchanged our papers to be graded by peers. I was in high spirits! I felt confident that I would get all 10 words correct and be allowed the coveted honor of standing tall and proud (hopefully, I would be the only person), when the teacher announced: “Those who got all 10 correct, please stand!” Can you imagine, my shock and horror, when I got back my paper and saw that I had 9 correct! What!! I scrutinized my script. The last word was “razor”, and between the letters “o” and “r” was an “i” that I had NOT put. I was indignant!  I pleaded the case with my teacher with as much vigor as a lawyer pleading over a life and death sentence. My teacher compared the writing and the color of the ink and determined that a crime had been committed by my friend. Ah ha! I reveled in my vindication, and I rejoiced in her demise. But wait, there is more. For many years later, whenever, I saw my friend, the first thing that would come to my mind was: “Hmmph, she put an “i” in my razor!!” For sure, this is a crude example, but there you have it–pride, feelings of superiority, lack of forgiveness, resentment, ill-will etc. etc.

Now here I am an adult, and I recognize that it is still all too easy for feelings like these to surface in response to a myriad of life experiences–injustices real or perceived. How much harder it is for us to cultivate the response of love in the face of injustice, forgiveness in response to wrongs, and humility instead of selfish pride. In reflecting on the difference between that 9 year old girl then and the woman I am now, I do not want that difference to be merely that I have learned to hide these feelings better–to present to those who know me a false view of my inner reality. So what’s a girl to do? Well, here’s my 1,2, 3 approach.

  1. Admit Your Poverty of Spirit. Coming to this point in my life journey has been remarkably liberating. Empowering even! I can’t even begin to tell you the many times I would begin my analysis of a difficult interaction with a colleague or friend from the flawed perspective that “I don’t understand it. I am a nice person!” “Oh, PllleaeSEE!”The spiritual foundations of my faith tells me that none of us is good or has a good heart. It is only in recognizing my poverty of spirit that I am in a position to begin the process of countering this reality. I am no longer surprised or taken off guard when negative feelings surface and my ugly spirit rears its head. I expect it.
  2. Speak to Your Poverty of Spirit. Yes, I speak to myself! When an event happens that triggers negative feelings, I face these feelings head on. I examine my feelings and the weight of the circumstances surrounding them to determine the amount of effort and work it will need to counteract it. Let me illustrate this using money (Hey, I’m married to a CPA. It rubs off). So I say to myself, “Girl you’ve only got two pennies of  good vibes about this. However,  you need that whole dollar of good vibes to to be in line with the spirit that you desire.” So I say:  “Wow. This is gonna be a BIG one!  Girl, you’re gonna have to dig deep. No pain no gain!” Then I prepare myself to do battle with the cry, “Bring it on!”
  3. Act from that Poverty of Spirit. I now think of these experiences as opportunities for spirit growth. So what do I do? I begin by spending the two pennies of good vibes as an investment into the rich spirit I desire. For too long, I had operated under the misconception that I needed to feel better to act differently. This misconception is crippling. If we fail to act against our base instinct, we run the risk of having that unwanted spirit deplete our nobler aspirations– we lose the few pennies of good vibes that we have. So lean into your spiritual oasis! Lean into your God, and ask Him for the strength to act from that place of scarcity. Here’s the remarkable thing!  First,  I do believe that acting out of our poverty of spirit is a quality that God values.  Jesus said of the poor widow that when she dropped her two mites into the offering plate she had given more than all the others, because she had given “out of her poverty”.  Secondly, when we invest our little in living more intentionally towards a nobler, better way  of walking, those pennies  grow exponentially–we  begin to develop a richness of spirit.

An experience I had several years ago while teaching at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College in the British Virgin Islands made me a believer in this system.  One morning as I was explaining an important concept, one young woman came in very late and was talking loudly on her phone. She proceeded to call out loudly “Good morning”, and was disruptively heading to the front of the class. I stopped her and asked her to quietly slip into the back. Well! She did not appreciate that! So she proceeded to curse me out, then she turned around (still cursing), walked out the door and slammed it loudly behind her. Boy! I was livid! I could hardly wait for my one on one tutoring session with her later that week. Oh it was ON! it was ON like popcorn with a whole “lotta” butter! However, while explaining what had happened to a wise and dear friend, he challenged me to treat her with the same level of care and concern as I would have if nothing had happened. Like, “Huh??”

Well, a couple of afternoons later when she walked into my office, I looked up at her with a broad smile on my face and said. “Hi, *Beverly. I am so glad you could make it. Now how can I help you, today?” It was not until  the end of the session that we talked about what had happened. She was still belligerent. But guess what? As I had gritted  my teeth and dug deep throughout the session to love her, my attitude towards her had changed. She admitted that she had felt embarrassed when I stopped her. To which I could have responded and defended my actions with a number of reasons. Instead, I smiled and said, “It’s okay. I am here to help you in whatever way I can. These things happen.” Fast forward, several years later, on a visit to British Virgin Islands, I saw  Beverly at the airport. She greeted me with an exuberant hug and we chatted like old friends. How different this encounter might have been had I chosen to act differently.

The secret to cultivating a beautiful spirit is rooted in an acceptance of our poverty of spirit coupled with a fierce determination to act contrary to these feelings with each arduous battle. As difficult as it was that day to repay Beverly’s disrespect with respect and to place her interest above my own, when she left the office that day I felt like I was on a high that money could not buy.

That is the high that I continue to chase after.

* Not her real name.

Lessons from my Father and a Summer Garden

My father had two girls, but I don’t think anyone ever told him we were girls. While other neighborhood girls were busy painting their nails and playing dress up, we were often working as his “go-fors” on any one of his many projects, or we were cleaning the yard, putting fertilizers around the tomatoes, or helping him get his crop of watermelons ready for the market. Dad loved the land, and he was a constant gardener.

sunflower-3

My experiences working in my garden this summer, made me reflect on dad and the legacy he passed on to us in understanding the value of work– not just any work but of “manual labor”– working with your hands. When I went to boarding academy in Trinidad, Manual Labor was a required course in the curriculum. I kid you not! Everyone had a pick of where they would work: on the farm, in the broom shop, on grounds, at the health food store, in the laundry, or in the cafeteria. And as I think of it now, what a valuable addition to the curriculum that was! There are gifts that come from the kind of work where we must bend our backs—work that makes curls droop, nails chip, sweat drip, muscles ache, and hands chafe. Yeah, that kind of work.

When I started posting garden updates on my Facebook page, one of my friends suggested that I take a picture in a straw hat, and wearing a long, white flowing dress that would hopefully blow in the wind, as I appeared to stare dreamily at the plants in my garden in a Martha Stewart inspired moment. I resisted. Why? Because, the truth is that gardening is far from glamorous– and I have the tan, the scars, and nails to prove it. Actually, this lack of glamor is one of the things I love about it! After spending most of my days in the world of books, nothing is quite as raw and unpretentious as digging in dirt, pulling weeds and battling with aphids, beetles, and caterpillars. Yes, not exactly a beauty queen moment. And yet, there is a beauty to it all that is beyond compare.

garden June

In the garden we are confronted with “life at the bone”, and it is here, according to Thoreau, that “life is sweetest”. In the garden we see that seeds shallowly planted can be carried away by birds, a heavy downpour can wash away the potential for life, and young seedlings must courageously battle the elements and bugs to have a chance at survival. I saw plants learn to grow where they had been planted—some beds were clayey, some too moist, sandy or lacking in nutrients— yet, they persisted growing and flourishing as best they could. In the garden, I grieved the loss of plants—eaten by critters that did not tend them. But then I watched them bounce back when not even one leaf was left on a chewed off stalk. That indomitable spirit spoke to me, inspiring me to replant and press on. It made me recognize that my part in the process was to sow the seed, water it, and cultivate the young plant. His part is to do what I cannot– breathe life into dead places.

I am grateful that dad cultivated in me an appreciation for the value of work with my hands. As I reflected on his legacy, I was reminded that the first work God gave man was to “farm the land and take care of it”. No doubt, God did not need Adam’s help. He, who made the earth out of nothing, did not need a co-laborer to keep his creation beautiful and “good”. However, in assigning Adam this work, God was handing him a gift (pun intended). I like to think that God was passing on to Adam a treasure that would nurture his own spirit, that would teach him important life lessons, and ultimately remind him that like the plants under his care, he was himself under the care of a master gardener—God himself.

tomatoes