The Synergy of Courage

Back sometime in the 80s or 90s, I began to notice a lot of people using the word “synergy.” Although the word comes to us from ancient Greek, it seemed to get discovered all over again in the latter part of the 20th century.  It originally meant “working together,” but the modern accepted meaning is steeped in the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, what you and I accomplish together is bigger than simply combining what you and I can accomplish individually. 

There’s another word I want to throw into the mix here: groupthink. This is a term coined in 1952 by William H. White, Jr.  Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which a group’s desire for harmony results in dysfunction and questionable choices. It requires members of the group to avoid raising questions or thinking critically about the group’s function. Groupthink is often the byproduct of an emphasis on cohesiveness over innovation. One of the results of groupthink is a delusion that the group is correct; size and conformity create the mirage of rightness. 

Groupthink may also be related to something known as the bystander effect.  People who witness an emergency are far less likely to act if they are in a group. There was a series of classic studies conducted about the bystander effect in the late 1960s, and in one it was discovered that 70% would help a woman in distress if they were the only witness, but when other people were present, that number dropped to 40%. 

During World War II, after the Nazi occupation of France, there was a well-known resistance movement that arose. It started off slowly with isolated and unorganized efforts to stymie the Germans and the collaborationist French Vichy government.  In time, it grew into an effort that was considered a significant help to the Allies and ultimately was depicted admirably in movies, books, and other forms of popular culture. But, here is the reason I’m telling you this — at its height, the French Resistance consisted of maybe 5% of the population. Actually, 5% is a ridiculously generous estimate. It was probably closer to 2-3%. 

The Nazis took over France, and for the most part, the nation stepped into groupthink that dared not contradict Nazi ideology.  And, to be fair, the Nazis had a tendency to kill people, so I’m not sure how harshly we can judge 95% of 1940s France. 

I wonder who the first one was? The first French citizen who said to themselves, “This is not right. I can’t go along with this.” Who was the one who saw the lady in distress and thought to themselves, “Damn the crowd. I have to save the lady.” 

We’ll likely never know the one or the many ones in different villages and towns who followed a simultaneous call to resistance. All we know is that once they dared to take a stand against a wrong, others joined them.  

It has been said that one person with courage makes a majority.  Every time I hear that saying, I think about the Mahatma Gandhi, and I think about Harriet Tubman, and I think about Galileo, and Nelson Mandela, and Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  People who dared to stand against groupthink, even if they had to stand alone at times, and how their courage attracted others, and how a synergy developed that, if not exactly a majority, became stronger than the majority, for the synergy of courage in just a few is stronger than the facade of power held by a majority of conformists. 

Most of us won’t become a Rosa Parks or Frederick Douglass, but we may face an opportunity at some point in our lives to be the unknown origin of a noble resistance, the first to show the courage that will blossom into a synergy that may well change the world.  

The Hundred Year Cactus

At some point when I was in my early twenties, I heard about a plant called the “Hundred Year Cactus.” I don’t recall where I heard about it or any specific details except that this plant supposedly bloomed once every hundred years, but when it did, it was the most beautiful bloom in the desert. These were the days before the Internet, and I had no way of quickly verifying the information; I just accepted it. 

In recent years, I’ve tried to see what I could discover through Google, but what I’ve found bears little resemblance to the story I remember. There’s the saguaro cactus in Arizona which can take a hundred years to fully mature, but its blooms don’t wait that long. Then there is the agave, often called the “century plant.” It has been said to only bloom after 100 years, but that’s a fable. Agaves do take a long time to bloom but can do so in as early as 10 years in a hot climate, or up to 25 or 30 years in a cooler climate. 

But this isn’t really about a cactus. In fact, whether or not what I read was true or whether or not I actually read what I think I read doesn’t really matter.  I could have dreamed it. None of that changes the fact that I believed I read about this cactus that blooms only after a hundred years and the blooms were worth the wait. And none of that changes the fact that this story, whether real or exaggerated or completely fabricated, resonated with me on such a level that I still remember it thirty years later. 

During the decade or so after I did or did not read this true or untrue statement about a cactus that may or may not exist, I told the story many times as situations called for it. And I would always say, “I’m the hundred-year cactus.  It’s going to take me a while to bloom, but, baby, when I do, it will be worth it.” I said it so many times that it started to qualify as a mantra. 

Some might say that I affirmed my way into a late-blooming life. I think, rather, that I relieved some of the stress native to the first decade or so of adulthood that compels us to chase success and achievement. Instead, I went with the flow. I had a lot of jobs during that time, bad ones and good ones, embarrassing ones and even somewhat impressive ones. I let life lead and stepped into opportunities as they presented themselves but didn’t actively pursue them. One of those opportunities involved going back to college as a 29-year-old sophomore. For a late bloomer, 29 is a perfect age for college. 

After college and grad school, I started teaching, and I wondered then if this was the blooming. In a way, it might have been, at least the best blooming available at the time. 

But I was still plowing the earth and planting seeds and fertilizing and watering as well. And the cool thing is that after you plow and plant and water, the blooming is out of your hands.  Nature just has to take its course. 

During this past year, many years after I first heard or misheard the cactus story, and many years after graduate school and the start of my teaching career, I started a Tik Tok account that has 60,000 followers; started a podcast which has a few listeners – the most important of whom is listening right now, of course; became the interim minister at an interfaith, affirming, inclusive church; started an interfaith seminary program; and most recently, I’ve been invited to be the commencement speaker at my college’s graduation, something that held the number one spot — I am not exaggerating — on my bucket list.  In addition, I’ve recently received two speaking invitations that would qualify as a definite leveling up from my previous speaking gigs. 

All of this feels like a bloom. 

It could be that my younger self intuitively knew how my adulthood would progress. It could also be that I really did affirm this reality into existence. After thinking about it for almost a lifetime, I think it’s a little of both. 

Pay attention to what resonates. Find the affirmation that fits it like a glove. Say it over and over and over again. Say it every time it comes up. That’s the way you plow the field.  

Then let it go and watch to see what blooms. It might take a while, but it’ll be worth it. 

Be Your Own Guru

Sometime back in the early 2000s, I had that sentence flash through my brain – be your own guru. I thought it was deeply profound and a unique insight. It had arisen in my spirit in an organic fashion, and it seemed to spring from Source itself. Surely, I was a prophet. 

I briefly considered buying the domain name, writing a book, starting a movement, and being the guru that brought “be your own guru” to the people. Briefly. Very briefly.

Come to find out, a person named Betty Bethards wrote a book by that title way back in 1982 (a book I haven’t read, by the way, so this is not a plug, but it could be awesome for all I know). Then I found another book with the same title. And then several books with almost the same title — How to Be Your Own Guru, Be Your Own Change Guru, Find Your Inner Guru. It seems I wasn’t all that special.

Or, perhaps, we were evolving together and a bunch of us were getting the same message: It’s time to take ownership of our spiritual journey.

Evolutionary shifts are often messy, and the leap to being our own guru seems to have its own share of fits and starts. One of the byproducts seems to be some disenchantment with spiritual teachers. I’ve seen several instances lately of people turning away from gurus they once revered. And I’ve noticed that when people reject teachers I don’t resonate with, that is fine with me, but when they turn against those I respect, I feel an internal pushback. I want to parse the ways in which the teacher’s message must have been misunderstood. I want to bring the person back into harmony with the teacher. 

But when I move beyond that initial moment, I start to accept that everyone’s journey is valid, and their rejection of a teacher is what they need in this moment, and learning to listen to our intuition, learning to be our own guru, is often a herky-jerky affair.

On my journey to self-guided spirituality, I’ve learned to hold loosely to those I revere. We’re on this journey to begin with because we’re seeking answers, and when we find someone who seems to have them, we tend to clutch their teachings with a tight grip. We become a disciple, and we want to spread the gospel of our guru. But every single time I believe I’ve found a guru who has transcended this life and the ego completely, I’ve soon been given the opportunity to witness their humanness.  If I hold them loosely, though, I leave room for what rings true to wiggle into my spirit, and I stop wasting the energy of holding them hostage to my delusion of their perfection. 

If we don’t hold them loosely, then when we see their humanness, we tend to reject them, call them a false prophet, and even wage our own little smear campaign. We call them narcissists and money-grubbers. We sneer when someone mentions their name. Our newfound insight into “truth” might even cause us to judge someone else’s journey just because they are currently listening to that teacher. 

Please note, I’m not talking about the true charlatans. Those who have put on a spiritual disguise to collect wealth and power are their own special kind of repulsive. Preying on a person’s desire for spiritual growth is the lowest of all cons in my book. 

No, I’m simply talking about the many, the increasing many, who have had an insight and felt called to share it with the world. Some might even suggest that I am in that number, and in my very small way, I suppose I am. I’ve learned some important lessons on my journey, and for whatever reason, I feel so led to make them public. So, for those who are listening, and I’m glad that you are, I urge you to hold anything I say loosely. Let it roll around in your spirit. See how it feels. Take it for a test drive. If it feels like truth, you are welcome to it, free of charge. If it doesn’t, well, I’m only human.