The Supercoaches, Part Four (#660)

A quick note from Michael:

To coincide with the publication of Supercoach, I’ve decided to feature the work of some of the coaches I talk about in the book. In each case, I’ll share what I consider to be some of the most transformative elements of their work. I will also do my best to make clear what is their material and what is my interpretation and experience of that material. Any misrepresentation is mine and mine alone…

If you missed parts one through three, you can read them here!

I first heard about Bill Cumming’s What One Person Can Do 12 week program about eight years ago. Although my coaching and training business was theoretically going well, I was suffering a personal crisis at the lack of long-term impact I felt I was making in the world. I began to consider doing something else with my time and with my life.

When someone told me there was a course I could do that would enable me to discover within me something that would enable me to have “the impact of a Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela” while learning to “put an end to violence in the world”, I was profoundly skeptical. But at some level, I was also profoundly intrigued. When they told me the next course started in just a few days, I scrambled to get the last place available.

Each week, I would turn up for a phone call with 4 other people and Bill would listen to our stories and share wisdom and insights from his life and work, a career that has spanned four decades and involved work in the civil rights movement, health care, school system, and prison system. And each week, despite Bill’s almost annoying humility, I felt less and less worthwhile as I compared my limited accomplishments to his (in my eyes) extraordinary ones. At one point I joked to a friend that for me, the course should be renamed “What One Person Hasn’t Done” and that perhaps I should redo my website with the slogan “helping middle-class white people live happy, healthy lives”.

And yet, something in me knew to keep showing up each week – that there was something being said that I wasn’t yet hearing and something present that I could sense but not yet see or articulate. When the twelve week course finished I came back to do an advanced course, then a trainer’s training, and finally when there were no courses left to do I hired Bill to be my personal coach and worked with him one on one for another couple of years.

There is no way I can express fully what I have learned from my time working with Bill, but here is the essence of what has really transformed my life as I have expressed it in my writing over the past few years:

Recognizing the inherent worthiness of every human being on the planet (including me and you)

I have long been fascinated by the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., a man as instrumental in the success of the civil rights movement in the US as Mahatma Ghandi was in gaining the independence of India from the British Empire.

In studying the lives of these two men, there are two things which stand out for me as worthy of contemplation. The first is that both were decidedly human, imperfect, and fallible, (something which I personally find deeply comforting as it suggests perfection may not be a prerequisite for making a positive difference in the world :-). The second is that both demonstrated in their words and actions a deep and abiding respect for all people, regardless of color, creed, religion, or standing in life.

Now, “respect” is not a word I have given particular thought to over the years. In fact, if you asked me what associations I had with the word before studying the lives of these inspirational men, I would have said (in this order):

a. A song by Aretha Franklin

b. Something you’re supposed to give to people older than you (like your parents) and get from people younger than you (like your children) but often don’t!

Yet when I began to look into it, I discovered that there are essentially two schools of thought in our society when it comes to respect:

1. Respect is a Commodity to be Earned

In this ‘school’, any time you “do the right thing”, honor your word, and fulfill your promises, you earn respect; any time you do the “wrong” thing, break your word, or fail to follow through on your promises, you lose respect.

Despite the pervasiveness of this idea in our culture, we can easily feel its shortcomings when we consider how difficult it is to live up to its challenge. Have you ever failed to follow through on a promise? Ever told a lie? Ever done the “wrong” thing (even if it was unintentional)?

For many of us, trying to live up to the ideal of earned respect has the opposite of its intended effect. Rather than raising us up to the heights of virtue, self-love, and self-esteem, it often drives us to give up on self-improvement altogether and put our attention on simpler matters, like choosing what to wear and what to watch on TV this week.

2. Respect is a Basic Human Right

In the Jennifer Lopez movie Maid in Manhattan, she plays a maid who leads a double life as a society beauty. The very same people she serves as a maid fail to recognize her in her other guise because they’ve never really looked at her when she serves them.

But serving them is what she does, not who she is – as Bob Hoskins’ butler points out, “being of service is not the same as being subservient” – i.e. seeing yourself as less than the people you serve in any way, shape, or form.

In fact, seeing other people as ‘just like us’ acknowledges an inner knowing that we all share but rarely speak of – that black or white, rich or poor, positive or negative, we’re all going to die one day and there’s nothing any of us can do about it!

Therefore in this ‘school’, you are worthy of my respect because you too are alive and doing the best you can to make it through – no more and no less.

The dictionary definition of respect is as follows:

Main Entry: [1]re·spect
Pronunciation: ri-‘spekt
Function: noun
1 : an act of giving particular attention
2 a : high or special regard b : the quality or state of being esteemed

So to respect someone it to pay ‘particular’ attention to them, and/or to hold them in high or special regard. And if someone is worthy of my respect, it means they are worthy of both my attention and of my esteem.

This does not mean I have to like them (phew!), nor does it mean I have to want in any way to emulate them (double phew!). What it does mean is that I need to stop deleting them from my universe.

I can demonstrate my respect for you by noticing you – by acknowledging your existence. By learning your name. By looking you in the eye (or by knowing if in your culture that is deemed inappropriate). By taking the time (where possible) to get to know you, to learn about you – your history, your family, your loves, your pain.

What I’ve come to realize since I began studying it is that respect is actually a form of love. What makes it a particularly potent one is that it causes the love to be made tangible.

The week I really got that my life was valuable not because of what I had or hadn’t done with it but simply because ALL life is valuable I wrote this story, which I later included in You Can Have What You Want:

In her final year of school, a rabbit from the wrong side of the tracks got a new teacher who told her that he loved her no matter what and that he knew she had the power to choose whatever kind of life she wanted for herself. She challenged the teacher again and again, but no matter how ‘bad’ she tried to be, the teacher balanced appropriate discipline with genuine heartfelt loving kindness.

Whenever she was upset, he challenged her to look at her part in creating and nurturing the upset, and he encouraged her to take care of herself on a daily basis by doing those things that she loved, like hopping, running, and reading inspirational literature. (The Velveteen Rabbit was one of her favorites.)

Eventually, the rabbit learned to trust herself more and to worry less about what other people thought she should be doing with her life. But even though she was popular with the other animals (after all, her daily running and jumping had made her the star of the track team), there was a part of her that still knew she was horribly inadequate and she felt the loving teacher was wasting his time on a worthless ball of fluff like her. No matter how fast she ran, she still cringed inwardly when she saw the birds who flew with such grace and the fish who swam like, well, fish.

Then one day, the unthinkable happened. She stepped on a thistle and hurt her lucky foot; she could no longer run. What little value she felt she had in the world had been taken away by one tiny thorn. The rabbit cried and cried until she was empty, and it was then that she heard a new yet oddly familiar voice inside her mind – still, small and as clear as a bell. It whispered, ‘Your value is not in your speed.’

From that moment on, the voice stayed with her wherever she went. As she watched the birds fly high above the playing fields, the voice whispered, ‘Their value is not in their wings.’ When she saw the fish swimming laps in the pool, the voice said, ‘Their value is not in their ability to swim.’ When the rich old badger who helped to support the school came by, the voice said, ‘His value is not in his wealth.’

And the rabbit could see that it was true – the birds’ value was not in their flight, her teacher’s value was not in his teaching, and her value was not in her speed, or in her ability to hop, or even in the way she could twitch her nose and make everybody laugh. And that thought made her laugh and laugh until once again she was empty, and the voice spoke again inside her mind.

‘Now,’ the voice said, ‘we can begin …’

Have fun, learn heaps, and as Bill would say, “Make yourself a wonderful week!”


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