Last week I published a quote on Monday that I regretted by Tuesday.

The quote was from the author Gustave Flaubert (best known for Madame Bovary) about getting organized: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Flaubert’s comment resonated with me because a tall pile of appointments, problems and paperwork had amassed on my desk and like whiny children tugged at me for attention. Surely, I mentally reasoned, once the checklist was cleared and my mind freed from the clutter, a ferocious, intense creativity would unblock and hurl forward on the strength of pent-up emotion.

But then Tuesday came with the news of violence in Brussels. I felt badly; I’d used the word “violent” lightly, and by being side-by-side in your inbox with news of the attack, it felt thoughtless. Then over this past weekend another terrorist attack took place this time in a Pakistan park and a soccer stadium in Iraq. Alongside the reports of frightening overseas tragedies, a bi-weekly blog seems pretty trivial.  

So I have been thinking about people from other countries. Though these international places are physically far, far away, faces of people we’ve met in our travels have come readily to mind:

Kangaroos may look playful but found out they’re pests!

Kangaroos may look playful but found out they’re pests!

  • An image of a retired French couple in their 70s floats in front of me. We met them at dinner outside of Ushuaia, Argentina. They were traveling around the world running marathons in as many major cities as possible. I remember them laughing as I struggled to find the right French word in reply to their marathoning: Incroyable! (Amazing!) Next marathon: Chicago. 
  • I remember an Australian family -- parents and their two teenage boys each with sun-reddened skin and pale white tan lines just visible below the collars and cuffs of their loose denim clothes. They sat alongside us in a restaurant on a boat cruising Sydney Harbour. They’d just begun a weekend holiday away from their Outback farm. They answered our questions cheerfully enough but with accents so thick we had to lean in to follow their fascinating rant about what pests the wild kangaroos were at the “big house” (homestead). And here we thought kangaroos were cute. 
  • And from Dublin, an Irish cab driver comes to mind whose every other line was a joke. When my husband asked about the town’s famous Temple Bar area, renowned for its pubs, the cab driver said, “Be careful there. Last night I had a few too many pints. When I came home I kissed the dog and put the wife out.”

Makes you smile doesn’t it?

We are each so different; we are each so much the same. We are each so unique, and yet have so much in common. Our world is an infinite variety of individuals wrapped up by culture and family and language and interests and tradition. It’s funny how travel can simultaneously expand one’s world -- then once the newness wears off -- diminish our differences. 

More Connection than We Realize
This inter-connection is a claim made by the Six Degrees of Separation theory. Although the idea originated in 1929 (by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy) it was made popular in our time by a 1990 play written by John Guarre. (Later Will Smith starred in a movie by the same name too.) The idea rests on the premise that everyone is six or fewer steps away from any other person in the world. It claims that a chain of “friend of a friend” connections (being introduced to someone you don’t know but have a mutual friend in common) can link any two people on the planet with a maximum of just six relationships. 

Why? Karinthy wrote that the world was “shrinking.” Advancements in communications and travel meant that physical distance between individuals mattered less. Friendship networks could increasingly span the globe (And this long before the Internet!). He felt six steps would do it. 

If so, you and I are connected to Princess Kate!

You and I are connected to Oprah. 

You and I are connected to 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi who drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in September and whose sad photo went viral. 

You and I are connected to the Brussel victims. To the Brussel terrorists. To those in Pakistan and Iraq.

Just because we’re connected doesn’t automatically mean we approve, empathize, sympathize, right?  Connection does not mean accountability for another’s actions and decisions. 

Yet, to me, entertaining the thought that I have a connection makes external events and the people affected by them feel closer. For when something’s happening nearby, like in my own backyard, I’ll feel a lot more urgency to pay attention and maybe do something. But what? 

A series of events a few years ago urged me onto a path to figure this out. But first, let me share a parable about black and white birds that gave me the direction I needed.

Parable of Birds
The parable comes from the teachings of an African wise man named Tierno Bokar (as told by his mentee and philosopher Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1901-1991.) I read about both men in a book by Pierre Pradervand, The Gentle Art of Blessing. 

As Pradervand tells it, Tierno described two walls facing each other. Imagine the walls full of small niches where the birds nest. The black birds represent negative thoughts or words, the white ones denote positive thoughts or words. The birds and their niches have slightly different shapes: the black birds can only enter the black holes, the white ones the white holes. Pradervand then recounts:

“Two individuals consider themselves enemies:  Ali and Youssouf. One day, sure that Ali is plotting something evil, Youssouf sends him an evil thought, thereby releasing a black bird and freeing a niche of the same color. The black thought-bird of Youssouf flies in the direction of Ali’s wall, looking for an unoccupied black niche of its shape. Let us imagine that Ali did not respond by sending a harmful thought (a black bird in the parable). No black niche will be available for Youssouf’s oncoming black bird, so it will return to its original niche in the wall, laden with the evil it carries. Not having managed to harm Ali, it will harm Youssouf, for evil, explains Tierno, never stays inactive, even (and especially) to the one who gave birth to it. 

“If, on the other hand, Ali plays into the hands of his supposed enemy (for all this is happening on the subjective level of the two men’s imaginations) and also sends out a black thought-bird he will immediately free a black niche into which Youssouf’s black bird will enter and deposit part of the evil with which it is loaded. Meanwhile, Ali’s negative messenger will have deposited its load of hate into the niche freed by Youssouf’s black bird. Thus both black birds will have reached their goal and harmed the person they were aimed at. 

“But once their task is accomplished each bird will return to its original nest, for it is said, ‘All things return to their source.’ The evil which they were loaded not being depleted, this evil will turn against its authors...The author of an evil thought, an evil wish or a curse is thus hurt by both his enemy’s black bird and his own.

“Of course, the same mechanism functions with the white birds, but positively. If, whatever the circumstances, we send out only good thoughts, only blessings, when our enemy is sending us just the contrary, his black birds will not find a place to rest, and ours will returned strengthened by the exercise of flying in the often agitated skies of human thought.  And the black birds of our opponent will be ‘returned to sender’ stronger than when they left.

Thus, concluded Tierno, if we send out only good thoughts, no evil, no curse can ever reach us in our being. That is why we must always bless friend and foe alike. Not only will the blessing fly toward the objective to fulfill its mission of appeasement, but it will one day or another return to us with all the good with which it was loaded.” 

If my thoughts are like a boomerang, good or bad, what I send out circles back.  Send out reactions of fear, resentment, anger -- not so good. Respond with courage, compassion, resolve, blessing -- better. 

A return to happier times at work. 

A return to happier times at work. 

In my case I was struggling under the persistent attack of a man that had steadily worked to undermine me professionally and personally. I felt naive, vulnerable and helpless against his calculation. Gradually, my wonderful work environment became increasingly poisoned and confusing until I couldn’t think straight, relationships were dissolving and I felt increasingly alone. The black birds seemed to have taken up permanent residence. 

So, reading this parable gave me clarity and a sense for what I could control: my thinking. I may not be a savvy political operative but I did have governance over my own thoughts. Frankly, it took many steps, but gradually I resolutely replaced every suggestion of fear and resentment with compassion, choosing not to be a victim. First ideas came on how to distance myself from this man. Later he was removed from my professional life.  

Another interesting outcome of this mental scrutiny was the discovery that I’d taken on a habit of mentally criticizing others more than I realized.  This included me!  Discovering I’d placed another’s name or face (or my own) in the center of a mental bulls-eye gave me the heads-up to arrest the criticism and replace the target with a blessing. I’m not interested in giving a black bird a place to rest. 

The intent behind this blog is that in everything we do we believe in pushing through boundaries and the edges of limitation. The way we do this is to share stories and ideas...and, today, a parable!

You know it turns out that critics call Six Degrees of Separation an urban myth.  A number of researchers have sought to prove it. For example in 2003 Columbia University set out to try to prove it with Internet email users. Their study (called the Columbia Small World Project) showed that while the six steps (or less) was true for some, for those who stuck with the study, many took 7, 8, 9 or 10 connections. Another example is from MIT that did a 1973 study predicting it was more likely only three degrees of separation existed between people in the US!

 Regardless of what the actual number is for you or me, I guess it just makes sense that as the Internet’s reach expands so too does our web of connectivity. 

So when the Internet (or newspapers or tv) carry the latest news, we have a choice: White bird? Black bird? It’s a work in progress for sure but I’m trying to zing out mental boomerangs I want to welcome back.

Sending you a white bird of thanks for reading!