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12 March 2005

Embrace your clearness committee

“Whenever I climb, I am followed by a dog named Ego.” –Friedrich Nietzche

I came across a story this week that intrigued me. I could see myself in it, if truth be told, and perhaps if you squint, you can see some tiny part of yourself in it as well.

It’s a story about Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator and author of the book Let Your Life Speak, in which he writes about a time he was offered the presidency of a large educational institution. He was thrilled with the thought of the status, pay raise, and influence he would have with the new position.

But before he accepted, he convened a group of friends to serve as what the Quakers have called since the 1600s, a “clearness committee.” The “Clearness Committee” protects individual identity and integrity while drawing on the wisdom of other people, allowing a person who is seeking clarity of vision on an issue to gain the wisdom of a group. The sole mission of the Clearness Committee is not to have the right answers, but to craft respectful and supportive questions that help the person find their own heart-centered answers. The Clearness Committee honors these inner answers - the ones that we must truly own.

At first the questions of the group centered around things like his vision for the institution. Then someone asked what seemed like a very simple question: "Parker, what would you like about being president?"

He started listing things he wouldn't like -- the politics, raising money, no time for teaching. His friends asked again: "But what would you like?" Irritated, he answered, "I wouldn't like to give up my summer vacations, I wouldn't like..." For the third time they said, "But Parker, what would you like about it?" 

Finally reaching deep inside, in a small voice, he called up the only honest answer he had, appalling himself as he uttered the words, “I guess what I'd really like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.”

The group was silent. At last someone spoke: "Parker" he said, "can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?" They all laughed and they all knew what his decision would be.

Certainly there’s a message in his story about understanding and owning our personal motives, facing (and naming) the ego truth in what we do. Have you ever daydreamed about what your business card would look like with a more impressive-sounding title on it? (“Queen of All She Surveys” or “High Priestess of Perpetual Motion” are viable options.) Am I doing what I do because I really believe it needs doing – and (just think of the implications!) because I actually enjoy it? Or am I doing it just because it’s a stepping stone? Do I find myself doodling in the margins of books what my new title will be and what they’ll say about me in the New York Times?

My 12-year-old daughter was nominated to be in the Junior Honor Society last year and this. Last year, I didn’t even know about the nomination, but this year she slipped up and left the announcement on the dining room table. When I found it and gushed about the honor, she said, very quietly and without moving her head, that she wasn’t going to join. “Why?!,” I gasped in a horrified you’re - being - recognized - you - have - to - accept - it mother voice. She’s uninterested. “My life is really full,” she explained, “with things I actually like doing, like the softball team and playing tuba in the band.” “But,” I sputtered, “it’ll look good on your college application.” (Did I mention she’s just 12?) And so, a lifetime of impressing others could have begun. Instead, she didn’t join the honor society, choosing to run the bases rather than sit in meetings. She’s my best teacher.

There’s also another important message, I think, below the surface: do I have a “clearness committee,” a “circle of trust” that I can convene at these important moments in my life? The answer for me is yes, though far flung--from Wellington to Hod-Hasharon to California to D.C. to Stellenbosch to Portland and many places in between. Some of the best questions I’ve ever gotten are from half a world away. Perhaps I don’t tap into their wisdom often enough. Or thank them enough. Or listen closely enough to the truth that emerges in response to their questions.

In another of his books, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer offers this view of a “circle of trust,” akin to the Clearness Committee:

“Here is one way to understand the relationships in a circle of trust: they combine unconditional love, or regard, with hopeful expectancy, creating a space that both safeguards and encourages the inner journey. In such a space, we are freed to hear our own truth, touch what brings us joy, become self-critical about our faults, and take risky steps toward change—knowing that we will be accepted no matter what the outcome.”

I love that definition—unconditional love with hopeful expectancy. Who is in your circle of trust, both safeguarding and encouraging your inner journey, simultaneously nurturing and challenging you? With whom do you know you will be accepted no matter what the outcome?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Quick! Write down the names of the people on your “clearness committee” or in your “circle of trust.” Find a unique way to thank them for serving – and start using them. Also, get honest about the reasons you do what you do…perhaps there is a better way to get your picture in the paper.

Johnnie Moore is one person whose musings I like to read. On his blog he recently posted a short quiz from a book by Marc Gafni, Soul Prints, which gets to some of the message for me this week:

Name the five wealthiest people in the world.

Name the last five winners of the Miss America contest.

Name the last five people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.

Name the last half dozen Academy Award winner for best actor and actress.

Name the last decade's worth of World Series winners.

How did you do?

I know I did horrendously. The point is this: We forget yesterday's headliners. These people are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Trophies tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and awards are buried with their owners.

Here's another quiz. See how you do on this one.

List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.

Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.

Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.

Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.

Name half a dozen heroes whose stories have inspired you.

I think you get the point. I know I did. Embrace your clearness committee.


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List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.

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