The marvelous is just as real as the “murderous.”

This essay is about hopeful interruptions to cycles of violence. These create space to catch our breath. From a more neutral position we can think about things can be different.

Marvelous interruptions discussed here are grace, laughter, hope and beauty. There are others such as connection, a focus of work by Brene Brown.

What is “marvelous?

In his Nobel prize winning speech, Heaney describes how his poetry became great once he realized in life many things are true. Specifically, life has both “the marvelous” and “the murderous.”

“Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote….Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect…Forgetting faith, straining towards good works….Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in despite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous.”

Here are descriptions of grace, laughter, hope, and beauty, four types of very real “marvelous” things.

Grace

Grace is God’s unmerited favor. It’s a much discussed topic, and I recommend you to excellent books on the topic such as What’s So Amazing about Grace by Philip Yancey.

I also recommend making days when you feel down a “treasure hunt for grace.” See how many signs of unmerited favor you find in your world.

I was challenged one time on a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’d been struggling. I was challenged by my partner to look for concrete signs of grace.

Walking along a sidewalk on Berkley street I kept my head down and saw the below written in concrete:

I was walking in Cambridge, Massachusetts looking for tangible,concrete signs of grace during spring, 2013. I saw this on Berkeley Street: a literal concrete sign of grace! Typically people write "love" or "peace" in concrete. Here the person wrote "grace."

Berkeley Street, Cambridge MA Photo taken by Allegra Jordan on April 6, 2013.

Laughter

Laughter interrupts us and creates spaces that invite us to think differently, as well as to connect with others. When we laugh we can become aware of:

  • A new way of thinking about ourselves and our tasks,
  • A connection to other people: who can resist sharing a joke?,
  • New power dynamics: we have the ability to change context even though we have little power,
  • An improved ability to cope with difficult facts, and
  • Our bodies as we engage in the physical act of laughing.

Spiritual wisdom seeks to help a person have a calm sense of joy, even when going through terrible crises. Laughter can come from joy and sense of play, promoting generosity, courage, and a sense of well-being. Buddhists even teach that when we half-smile, it relaxes our faces and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. This laughter frees our energy for renewal. It’s a cleansing laughter.

There is a dark side of laughter that is not helpful. Flippancy and sarcasm come from a source of bitterness and pain. It’s worth listening to the signal and thinking, “This person is digesting pain and emitting it to our group as sarcasm or flippancy,” but allowing toxic pain into creative conversations can be an immediate, direct innovation killer.

So remember to try to find something to laugh about, especially in the dark times. The best humans have. Find the many reasons to laugh, including the hilaritas of being so certain about our future.

Hope & Beauty

Awareness is about being watchful, not wishful. When we collect examples of hope or beauty, we are building a unique set of data points that help us innovate in the future. We become aware of what is possible and inspiring. But these awareness triggers do much more than just give us potential.

When we are aware of hope and beauty, we appreciate the ways those examples refresh us and reduce trauma. This awareness has an immediate payoff, while its value to help us renew or innovate may be useful many months or years from now.

Here are questions emerging from the practice of seeking hope and beauty that help us become aware of different solutions to current problems:

  • What does this hope or beauty look like?
  • What is the ultimate promise of hope or beauty? (e.g. better lives, stronger communities, etc.)
  • Do you respect those values?
  • Do those values belong in this project?

Here are two examples that inspire many around the world:

Infosys. Infosys is a software solutions provider for large corporations. Infosys’ founders set as its goal to be the most respected company in India, a country beset by corruption. During the course of 30 years, the company went from a $250 loan to a $6.28 billion in 2011 revenue, without paying bribes.

Stated its co-founder, N. R. Narayana Murthy, “In February 1984, Infosys decided to import a super minicomputer. . . . When the machine landed at Bangalore Airport, the local customs official refused to clear it unless we “took care of him,” the Indian euphemism for demanding a bribe . . . /M/y only question was, “What is the alternative to paying a bribe? ”/ Our alternative: / pay a customs duty of 135% . . . We didn’t have enough money to pay the duty and had to borrow it. However, because we had decided to do business ethically, we didn’t have a choice.”

Maison Shalom. In the wake of Burundian genocide, Marguerite Barankitse, a former teacher who was forced to watch a horrific genocide, decided to show people a different way to live. She built Maison Shalom, house of peace, for war orphans and child soldiers to show them a different way to live. She has now impacted the lives of 30,000 people and has build one of the cleanest hospitals in Africa in Ryuigi, Burindi. In 2008 she was named the Faith-Based Social Entrepreneur of the Year and awared the $1 million Opus Prize.

(Two important cautions about “best practices”:

1. Sometimes these limit our creativity. If we look at the same examples of “how it’s done,” we have nearly identical database of examples to draw from. We will inevitably come up with similar offerings to each other rather than fresh new offerings.

2. These examples should help us see new potential, not confirm closed-minded biases. The data is important, but so is our attitude.)

When we practice awareness of hope and beauty, we think every day about things that help give us clarity and inspiration. Here are some examples:

  • Have a quiet meal with a few friends
  • See families bicycle around Versailles
  • See the colors at the Taj Mahal at sunrise
  • Read a biography of a person who overcame adversity
  • Watch the impact of the wind and sun on a puddle of water

These things create our own unique databases. When may they be useful? Every moment we can sit with their beauty and inspiration they help us re-center and see things can be beautiful. They may also help us solve a problem far into the future.

A note of caution about beauty

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, beauty was one of the ultimate standards, and it was tied to truth and goodness. Beauty provoked deep pleasure or intense satisfaction by providing something you could sense, or qualities you could observe, or important meaning.

While beauty can serve a guiding innovation principle, it is also a great interrupter, and healer. When we become aware of true beauty, we often don’t want to live in a world without it. It changes the trajectory of our thoughts.

Not all beauty is helpful. It can charm, divert us, and lead us to making less of ourselves. This is especially true when a friend or team member is struggling with his or her identity. When identity is not rooted in something deep but in an attribute—like beauty—or a physical thing (the problem of greed), challenges arise for the individual and for the community.

But in its best sense, beauty is admirable and powerful because it gives us an invitation to see things differently. Organizations seek to engage beauty in different ways: beautiful physical spaces, ethereal music, and even wrestling with the absence of beauty to help identify ways the world can be different. There is also beauty in the process, especially when we see a defeated team figure out what is wrong and fix it. Says one of the leading people in the field of labor law, Julius Getman, “One of the reasons I like working with laborers is seeing rank and file people understand that they have more power than they ever realized. I find great beauty in seeing a person who has never made a speech talk publicly for the first time about something they really care about.”

Invitations to beauty can be quite different than what we expect. Beauty can overwhelm us. It also can emerge slowly, as our eyes adjust to a new way of seeing. Being aware of beauty, seeking it out, letting it inspire us, is a key trigger for awareness and potentially for innovation, as is “hope hunting.”

Stress test for hope & beauty examples: The right kind of hope and beauty matter. For instance, economic elegance has its place. But if it’s embodied in something like slavery, where humans are considered low-cost economic inputs, that elegant solution destroys organizations and communities. If hope is seen as following a shaman who suggests women be burned as witches, as recently happened in Ghana and Nepal, the values on which that hope is based are devastating. If beauty is based in a concept that the temporary can be made permanent (e.g. youth), this is not beauty that makes more of our community over the long haul as it roots people’s identity in something that can be appreciated in the moment but can’t last.