Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Perceptions (What I Learned From a Bunch of High School Students)

Diversity:
Webster:  the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, 
etc.
the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization
Student:   how inside our differences, we are all the same

I knew when the students started arriving this was going to be a different kind of day. I could tell here was a different energy in the room, a special kind of excitement and anticipation.  I was right. On an ordinary Friday, at a school in East Nashville, I saw hope, compassion and unity in a group of extraordinary high school students.
My colleague, Eric Johnson, has been doing amazing work with his “Diversity Day” events for a while now. I've listened to him passionately talk about how inspiring the kids who have attended these events are, but due to scheduling, I hadn't had the opportunity to participate before this one. “Diversity Day” is a sort of cultural exchange program where a rural school and a city school send a group of students to spend the day together, to “walk in each others’ shoes.” At the beginning of the day, the two schools lined up in the middle of the gym. Then the students, one by one, walked toward the middle to meet their partner for the day. The pairs then stuck together for the entire day. The two schools involved this time were Jackson County and Maplewood. Maplewood had already spent the day in Jackson County, and now it was Jackson County’s turn to spend the day at Maplewood. In addition to Eric and I leading them through activities, the students ate lunch together, toured the building, walked the halls during class changes,  and attended a class with their partner.  
I wish I could describe every poignant moment, but there just isn't enough space. So, I’ll highlight a few. The first thing that struck me was the visual of them simply hanging out together. In the beginning of the day, they were encouraged simply to talk and get to know their partners. I didn't see any tension, anger, or much fear at all. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, poor, rich, rural, and urban, just talking, being with each other. Without the outside influences and noise they hear every day from the world around them, they were just kids. They were connecting.
Another moment came after lunch. We purposely divided them by the color of their eyes and treated brown eyes as if they were better than the others. They went to lunch first. We praised them. On the other hand, we made the others wait, and we talked to them as if they were second best. We then said that they were not allowed to eat with the brown-eyed students. However, once again, these amazing students rose to the occasion.  During our time of processing the activity after lunch, the students spoke with determination, purpose, and clarity. Several had defied our instructions, a kind of civil disobedience if you will. We asked them why they went against the rules.  The answers filled me with hope. They said they would not bend to the will of those who seek to divide. They stated that their friendship and loyalty to those they cared for, their new partners, outweighed any “societal” pressure to shun, demean, or divide. In other words, they stood up for an ideal in the face of pressure to do the wrong thing. I was reminded of the Robert Kennedy quote:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Finally, I was most moved during the “Perception Line” activity. Students stood in a line across the gym, each student holding the hand of their partner, then connecting to the rest of the group. Eric read a series of statements filled with perceptions, privileges, and biases.  Rooted in culture, economics, social standing, family makeup, opportunities (or lack thereof), ethnicity, and many other factors, the statements hold a mirror up to many of our societal perceptions. Each statement, based on its positive or negative impact on an individual’s status in our society, caused some students to step forward or backward, while others stood still.  Students watched as some of their friends continued to step backwards. I watched as they desperately tried to hold on to their partners’ hands as they stood farther and farther apart. Even though it was just a game, a simple activity, they inherently didn't want to let go.  They refused to let even one of their new friends breakaway. They didn't let anyone fall, no matter how uncomfortable it became. The students were bonded. They refused to let differences, struggles, or even space divide them. At the end of the previous Diversity Day, when Maplewood visited Jackson, one of the students said, “the only thing that separates us is a hundred miles.” Today, they found a way to close even that divide.
I may have gone there to inspire the students, but I was the one who left inspired.
Still, as if on cue, the “real world” invaded almost immediately. That evening, I began receiving messages from my friends and family in my hometown. See, I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I often visit. The city is part of who I am. Baltimore began descending into chaos and violence this weekend. It’s growing. Even as I write this, I’m receiving messages from family. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading some of the comments that follow news stories online. They are filled with hatred, violence, ignorance, and desperation. Yet, in the middle of it all, I hear the voices of the young people from Jackson County and Maplewood. I hear their hope. I see their fresh perspective. I feel their truth-filled defiance.  I know, yes I know, they will do it better. They will continue to usher in change.  They are ready and willing, if we provide the space, to bridge the deep waters that are between us, to bring peace in the midst of chaos, and hold up hope in a sometimes hopeless world.
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yes, I think I prefer the student’s definition of diversity over the Webster’s definition:
Diversity: “How inside our differences, we are all the same”
April 2015

Monday, December 22, 2014

All Is Well (Christmas 2014)

This may not have been the most chaotic, upside-down, violent year in history, but it certainly felt like it sometimes. Our world just seemed completely off-kilter. This little spinning planet was filled with new wars, old wars, disease, power-hungry politicians, corrupt leaders, hurting people, famine, and countless other atrocities. I can't answer why. I simply don't have the perspective from my vantage point in this giant universe to completely understand.

Still, I don't think the story of Christmas is at odds with our current state of existence. It tells, in a rather beautiful way, how peace entered a violent, chaotic, and lonely world through a fragile, innocent vessel. Not unlike today, the rulers, religious leaders, and desperate people of the day expected a political or military leader to lead them to victory over real and imagined enemies. But, that is not the story we find. Instead, we read of strength, power, peace, and life, through the birth of our most basic need in human form. Love.

Love is an unstoppable force. It lives everywhere, showing itself in even the most unexpected places. I certainly stumbled upon it this year. It was all around me.  I heard it in the sound of music playing through my MP3 player. And it washed over me at live concerts. I read it in the words of authors and poets. I saw it in the kindness and patience of those who work to educate children and help families. I was comforted by it through the listening ears of those I call Friend, in my most difficult moments. I was inspired by it through the courageous words of young people I was honored to speak with and train. I believed in it again because of companionship I never expected, or deserved. And I was saved by it, over and over, in the quiet solitary moments, when a peace I will never understand fell on me.

Our world will not stop turning around us. Bad things will still happen. But, if we are willing to see, we will find glimpses of hope, life, love,and goodness all around us. And yes, if we are open, we will even find peace. I think we all could use a little more of that these days.

(I put the following video together rather quickly, using pics from around the internet. The pictures are not always the highest quality, but they work. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs. If you've had a hectic, crazy, difficult day...or year, sit back and watch/listen)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Moments Of Clarity

(Originally posted on 6/17/10)

Movies, books, plays and even great songs have them-those moments when everything changes. Someone figures it out. Someone makes a move. It might be Sherlock Holmes putting all the clues together, or when Harry finally realizes he should have been with Sally a long time ago-a really long time ago. Maybe it was the first time Superman realized he was able to "leap tall buildings in a single bound," or when Will realizes he should go see about a girl, or...well, the list goes on and on. Moments. Moments when everything changes.

This is story. Something inside of us relates to it. Buried in our DNA is a connection to the arc of a story. Writers didn't invent these ideas. They respond to them. Think about your own life. What if there were never any conflicts or tough decisions? What if there weren't any times of struggle or loneliness? It sounds great on the surface, but it would be, in reality, a terribly boring life. Without struggle, we wouldn't understand accomplishment, or the feeling of winning. Without conflicts, we would all think exactly the same way, at the same time. Without tough decisions, we wouldn't know courage or gain experience. Without loneliness, we wouldn't know how incredible companionship is.

The problem is, we don't always realize we're in these moments. We tend to stroll through life, dealing with issues as they come, trying to smooth everything out, so that we can get to our two week vacation to Disneyland. We don't listen to the cues that life gives us. We miss the subtle whispers nudging us to go somewhere, to change course, or to sit still.

We end up living decent lives, but not great lives, not the lives we dreamed of when we were kids. Don't you remember? Maybe you were supposed to be a fireman or an astronaut. Maybe you daydreamed of being a ballerina, a football player, a missionary, or president.

Perhaps, you were supposed to be a musician and writer. You were going to tour the world and write songs that would race up the charts. I was. I used to escape the world around me when I closed my eyes. The darkness would turn to pictures of me singing in front of thousands. Of course, in many of my “visions”, after achieving fame, I would develop a drug problem and become suicidal. Only my inner circle of real friends could help me come back. Then, I would return to greater stardom than before. You know VH1 Behind The Music style.

Anyway, I think I wrote my first real song at 11, but I had been putting on concerts in my house long before that. Music, acting and writing were everything. So much so, one of my majors in college was music. I moved to Nashville in 1995 and everything was working. I recorded an album, performed all over the place. Beyond just the music and all that, I genuinely wanted to change the world.  I wanted to make things better.   The problem was that throughout the years, I had developed huge fear. No one knew it really; not even me. I also got real comfortable and developed some habits that shouldn't have come until after I was famous. I was a kid who grew up with very little and now I had pretty much everything I wanted. So, I exchanged my dreams for comfort. I pushed things aside to have friends, things, strangers' respect and, of course, a girl. I'm not diminishing my life. This is not a sad story. This isn't about my career choices. I just want to illustrate a point. I've done good things in my life so far. I ran a group home for kids in need. I've counseled hundreds of people through the toughest and greatest times of their lives. I have great friends and family. And, I've been so fortunate to start recording and performing again over the past few years. Life is good. But there could have been greatness. Thanks to grace, there still can be. I see fantastic things coming.  I've completed a book that is going through the editing process. My speaking schedule is full, taking me just about everywhere.  I can't think of a time when I was so completely prolific in my songwriting.  I'm ready to find my other half. Life is a good thing and I am greatly loved.

But, what if I had stayed on my original course? What if I never stopped? Where would I be? What if I had listened along the way to those whispers, and sometimes shouts? I've been taking inventory of my life, trying to learn from my good decisions and bad decisions. From this vantage point, it's all completely obvious what I should have done. Yet, I didn't.

But, I did wake up. It started in 2002. I was attacked in my home when a client came into my bedroom and tried to kill me. Imagine waking up to a fireplace poker missing your face by less than an inch. I fought off my attacker for about 30 minutes and ran out the front door in my boxers. You'd think I would have heard that cue. But, I didn't right away. I'm sort of slow like that. But, something started happening in 2005. I started coming back to life. I was writing, recording...living. I even had a spiritual awakening after years of numbness. Then, on October 16, 2006 (the day after my birthday), I went to get out of bed and I couldn't walk for a short time. Over the next few weeks, I started forgetting how to do things, passing out, etc. I was scared as hell. Then on Halloween night, I ended up in the emergency room and my long journey of recovery began. I'm not going to get into all the details here. It's too much information. But, I'm doing well. I had surgery and went through some treatment. I still take lot of medication and many, many tests. But, it looks like I'll live a relatively long, healthy life in spite of my illness. I have to say, I wish I would have listened earlier. I listened this time.

I had my moment. Different people call it different things. Oprah calls it your “aha" moment. Christians may recognize it in a person's decision to “get saved” or in someone "listening to the Spirit." Those from the Jewish faith may say it's a “burning bush” moment. Mental health professionals sometimes call it a “moment of clarity." It's that moment when it clicks. It makes sense. And more than just knowing it in your head, you feel it in your soul. As a person who counsels people for a living, it can get incredibly frustrating when the person you are working with knows what to do, but doesn't do it. You feel like you're banging your head against the wall, giving them cues as to what to do. But they don't do it. They just babble on about the way they do things...even though the way they do things isn't working. I'm sure everyone reading this has felt this way with friends or family or someone else. Have you? Don't get discouraged. They're just not ready. They hear you. They have the information. They just aren't ready for their moment yet-their moment of clarity. Instead of continuing to preach to them, stand by them, support them, love them and gently point them in the right direction. And don't get mad when they come to you one day, changed, because someone else told them exactly what you have been telling them for years. You were a step along the way. You were part of the foundation. Celebrate with them in their moment. More importantly, help them make it last.

That brings me to my last thoughts on this. When you have your “aha” moment, don't stop with the feeling. How many of us have watched some program about a cause that moved us, but we did nothing? The feeling wore off in a few days. When your moment comes, do three things: feel it deeply, make a decision and take action. There's a scene in (I know I shouldn't reference this movie because I will lose whatever “guy credentials” I have, but...) My Best Friend's Wedding when the Julia Roberts character and the “best friend” guy are on a boat and they are about to go under a bridge. Julia Roberts had been trying all day to tell him she was in love with him. The guy says that his “fiancee” (Cameron Diaz) says that if you feel something, you should say it. Just say it, right away, or the moment will pass. As he's saying this, they pass under the bridge and Julia Roberts lets the moment go. It's a terrible moment. But it illustrates what I'm saying perfectly. Don't let your moments of clarity pass without motion. Otherwise, you' might be missing out on who you truly should be.

So, listen. Truly listen to the whispers, the cues. Don't let your moment pass. No matter how many mistakes you have made, or wrong roads you have traveled, the past does not have to be your shackles. The past can be steps, watermarks. When your moment comes, fall on the grace you have been given and breathe in the future. Take it all in...and move.

Take care of yourself,

Matt

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

From the Road

Life on the road is a curious thing. It can feel completely the same and completely different, fully new and utterly old, all at the same time. It's a good thing in my life.

My view is a lot different out here.  I don't have all the distractions of home. My entire focus is bringing a message of hope to young people and the adults who speak into their lives daily.

Most of the time I travel with a team (The times I travel alone form a completely different experience...I'll save that story for another day). Our team is a special group.  We all come from different worlds,  surrounded with our own joys and complications.  At this point it's a well oiled machine.  But, trust me, it took time,  work,  experience,  and patience.  Each one of us has a very strong personality,  with our own gifts, biases, and agendas. Yet the differences are the reason it all works.  See, all these variables come together to make the one thing, the one goal we have in common, stronger.  This team, these people, all want to bring hope and light to those we encounter on the road. That's why it all works. This is the intersection where differences and vision come together to create action and change. Our own agendas are secondary to our shared purpose.  We want to see people live more peacefully, with less violence,  hate,  hurt, and strife.  We believe each and every soul we encounter has a purpose, even if they don't know it yet.

And this is why the road is a good place to be.  Sometimes I grow tired.  At times,  I'm downright exhausted.  But, the payoff is worth it. I get the absolute honor and privilege to help facilitate the changing of lives.  Even on my worst days,  when my attitude isn't right,  I still get to share words that may grip someone's heart,  cause inspiration,  shift a view,  or even alter a life's course. Wow. I am blessed. And,  without a doubt,  I am absolutely amazed, amazed beyond understanding.

So today, as we drive away from another event in a small town most people will never hear of, I am whispering thanks here in the backseat.  How can I not?

Oh,  and the best part is yet to come.  You see,  now I get to wonder when I will hear the first amazing story from this little community.  And, believe me, I will.  I always do.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Morning Peace

Every once in a while, a moment catches me unguarded. Whether it's a crisp morning breeze, the sounds of spontaneous laughter, the subtle dawn waves on the beach, or sudden silence, these moments capture my attention. It's as if time pauses for a reflection, and I can't look away.

Unfortunately, we try so hard, so often, to leap past these short whispers of peace. I know I do. I know I shouldn't. So, I turn on music, television, my phone, another argument, the internet, a book, or whatever other distraction I can locate to avoid these unrealized gifts. Let's admit it, it's actually easier to embrace chaos, conflict and even war than to find an armistice.

It's difficult to stop moving, be still, reflect, and be alone with our thoughts, regrets, and even hopes. Fear exists in that space. But fear is not something from which we need to turn. No, it is something we need to feel, and to walk through, in order to understand calm.

We live in a loud world. Still, every so often, in the middle of the noise, peace enters. It always has. It's very nature is a contradiction to the world around us. It jars us, heals us, scares us.

Peace seldom arrives triumphantly. In rebellion, peace more often arrives in the quiet. At times, it even appears in silence. Silence is amazing. It is here, when I listen, I find something true.


Yes, this morning I woke to peace. I chose not to war with it this time. Instead, I loosened my fists, lifted my arms in surrender, felt it's presence, listened to it's calm, and looked directly where it lead my eyes. I now have its memory. I will not soon forget.