Surviving Election Year Holidays

by Sam Melden

So there you are, it’s been a year since you’ve seen most of your family and your Grandma just asked you to pass the butter. You would love to but you are currently using the butter knife to pretend to cut through that awkward tension in the room from your opinionated Uncle who just said that about his favorite candidate. Your cousin’s eye roll was exaggerated, even for her, and your brother is going on and on because “this is what you get when you only have 2 parties.” Now, where is that butter? Right, it’s next to Grandpa who is sitting at the end of the table staring, silently, at his mashed potatoes. 

The question is: What do you do? 

Read More »

Disagreeing With Dignity

by Sam Melden

[Kitchen Table Politics November 2016]

My daughter dropped her head as she walked back to the house. She just realized that one of the neighbor kids wasn’t rooting for the same Presidential candidate that she was. She told me the story. One of the kids repeated a line they heard from their parents and then my kid repeated a few things she has heard in our house. And of course in our neighborhood, where the signs in our yard stand in protest of the large parade of the other candidate’s signs, we knew she might run into this situation. Kids say the darndest things, don’t they? Or when it comes to politics perhaps we could say, “kids repeat the darnedest things.”

When my oldest told me about what had happened with her friend, I had to reassure her. “First, honey, it’s okay - your friend can’t vote.” Now, that may have been more for the benefit of my wife who was listening in. It was funny. But then I started to reinforce what we believe about this time of year, and what we believe about politics and even more fundamentally, what we believe about disagreement. “It’s ok when we disagree with our friends. It just means we have a chance to learn or to grow. Or we have a chance to try to get better at listening than we are at talking,” I said.

By now, she wasn’t that interested, but I was reminded of something central to parenting: kids are going to repeat what they hear. This situation was partly about how to handle the infrequent bi-partisan playground discord and it was also about our kids repeating what they hear. Our children soak up all of these words and sighs and eye rolls and commercials and tense moments talking with Grandma about how she can’t believe its gotten this far. They see it, they hear it, they breathe it in. And then they repeat it to their friends while swinging. But, you know what else they hear? They hear the questions we ask in the tone we ask them. They know what it means when we respect each other and they are capable of repeating that tone and showing that respect back to their friends. So, how can we best prepare our children for these interactions? And how can we best prepare our children for all of the interactions they will have after the immediacy and heat of the election passes?

While it is important for adults to prepare for November 8th and to consider who they will vote for, I believe it is important for us to prepare our children for November 9th. The day after the election. When the results are in, a winner is declared and yard signs and bumper stickers transform from signs of hope to souvenirs. That is the day that we really want our kids to be prepared for, right? After all, they always need to be ready to treat all people with the dignity and respect they deserve.

The way we do that, is by behaving in such a way that the reality of November 9th is front and center in our family life. That is the day we are all reminded that we are all in this together. Despite the past year of separation and line-drawing, once the votes are tallied, we remember that we are all on the same team again. Isn’t that what we want for our children? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves?  This grand experiment called democracy is predicated upon this hope and dream. We the people, we are all in this together.

So, as I look back at that conversation with my daughter I think I’ve learned a lot. And the next time around I trust that she will be more prepared and less disappointed to learn of her buddy’s parent’s differing viewpoint. And I trust that the next time around I will be more prepared. When can teach our kids we are all in this together, we all win, no matter who wins.

Kitchen Table Politics

by Sam Melden

*New column for Toledo Area Parent. Find it here, or all over the city in Adams St. Publishing newsstands.

I love my kitchen table. A few friends of mine made it out of wood used to repair the front porch of our old house. It’s one of those “trendy” farm-style table, but the it was also quite cheap because it was repurposed from an intense building project. It seats around 8-10 people and will be in our house for a long, long time. Recently, my wife and I have been thinking about the role this table plays in our kids lives.

We have three daughters and they eat and draw and read and write at that table. They also laugh and scream and argue and spill and smear food at that table. It holds a significant place in their life and whether they know it or not, it fills an important role in their development. How to clean up and how to have fun with your family.

And while they are learning manners and listening skills they are also learning how Mommy and Daddy interact with each other. Learning about conflict and resolution and sustenance and contentment and lack and want. It is the place our children are filled. We have some really great moments around this table. But what else could happen at this table? What else could our little ones be learning?

A few nights a week, after the kids go to bed, this table transforms into the space where my wife Lindsey and I discuss all different kinds of issues. Sometimes we’re talking about what homeschooling might look like in upcoming weeks. Sometimes we are talking about family and friends or what’s happening in the neighborhood or what bills we need to pay. Sometimes we are talking about current events and headlines and political candidates and campaigns. And while the subjects may change, around this table everything is in someway connected. Yet, we have found that sometimes there can be a hefty, and not so healthy, distance between the kitchen table experience our kids have and the kitchen table experience we have.

We want to merge the two. How can we talk about the issues that really matter to us with our kids? And especially in this election season, how can we talk to our girls about the political issues that matter to our family? How can we begin to merge those two conversations when appropriate and formative to our young children?

I think the best way to form some of the most central habits and perspectives in our children is to begin with those topics and issues that are most central to them. Want to talk about poverty? Talk about hunger at the dinner table and see what conversation emerges. Sure, it may be easy to talk to my three daughters about the possibility of first woman president in US History, but what about crumbling infrastructure and pothole-ridden roads and tap water with microcystin? Go to the lake and ask them what color the water should be. Then start to explore how the water became that shade of neon green. The next time you are on a bike ride together ask them who should take care of the roads? All of these conversations, bit by bit, add up to something.

As we have started to try to explore these discussions, we found we need our children in this dialogue. They are the most creative, intuitive and imaginative people on the planet. Why not give them a shot at thinking about these things?

When we teach our kids, we force ourselves to become more informed. We gain perspective. By talking to our children we discover the issues that really matter. It is an active practice that forces us to be involved. It forces us to research and dig for answers to those questions your kids ask that leave you stumped.

“Kitchen table politics” is a common term in political circles referring to issues that immediately affect our lives. What is more immediate than our kids? What has a deeper effect than their well-being? What if kitchen table politics referred to the issues that mattered to you so much, that you had to talk to your children about it? What would that list look like for you? I encourage you to explore it

The Wrong Muscles

by Sam Melden

I’ve been running consistently for a few years now. It’s a wonderful practice and I’ve come to really enjoy the physical benefits. In addition to feeling better physically and mentally on days I run, the other physical benefits are very specific to the act of running. Simply put: running makes it easier to run more. The muscles you form and strengthen in the act of running help you run further and faster the next time. If you were to begin a heavy strength training regimen aimed at gaining muscle mass you probably aren’t going to reap the benefits of that exercise on your next long run. In fact that muscle mass could hold you back. You don’t see body builders running marathons and distance runners don’t oil up their body and flex in the mirror.

So, what happens when you work out and build up muscles that you think are important and they actually keep you from finishing the task?

This reminds me of the current quicksand (election season) in which we find ourselves. We are in this spot where no matter which side wins there will be an enormous amount of people who have been rehearsing hateful behavior toward the other candidate for about 12 months.

On November 8th a majority of the country will have some sense of hope and optimism that their candidate will win. They have been fighting for their choice and more than ever before, that fight has included complete demonization and dehumanization of the other candidate and their supporters and ideas.

We have reached a point where most people aren’t for anyone. A majority of our country is against someone.

So we spend time in the pre-primary, primary and general election phase of a campaign building up certain muscles that will actually be harmful to the task we all share after the election. On November 8th there will be hope and flexing muscles and acting the way we have prepared to act. And then on November 9th those muscles will no longer be useful, in fact, they will be dangerous to our future together. But by then, it will be too late. Our enemy, that one we have been stealing dignity from for 12 months, will be in the White House and we will have a mental, emotional and political physique that has been sculpted to perpetuate hate and cynicism and distrust. We’ve been working out like crazy, and when it is all “over” the truth is, it has just begun, and half of us won’t have what it takes to handle the task.

So what can we do?

Foster hope.

Fight against cynicism.

Be for something, someone.

Resist the urge to workout the anti-muscles of hate and cynicism and distrust.

When we practice being for people and policies and ideas and hopes and dreams, we find that our hope is much more easily transferable to the “other” than trying to reverse our hatred.

Let’s build up muscles we can use, no matter who is elected.

Ask Yourself...

by Sam Melden

between now & November 8th…

Why do I vote?

Is there power in voting?

Do I take it for granted?

Do I take it too seriously?

What do I expect to happen when I vote?

How will I make sure that it happens after my ballot is cast?

Are my expectations of this person too high?

Are my expectations to low?

Where do I get my information? Why do I get my information there? Have I ever tried to get my information elsewhere? Are other people who get their information there exactly like me? Is that a problem?

How would someone of a different race, gender, religion and economic class interact with this election?

What am I afraid of?

What am I hoping for?

What is the role of my president? My senator? My governor? Any of my representatives? Am I judging them on their actual job description and jurisdiction or based on my personal expectations for them?

Am I bent on living against something or wiling to live for something?

How else do I voice my opinion and articulate my values in this society?

Does my electoral vote line up with my everyday vote?

If not, what does that say about me?

Do I vote with my dollars with the same intentionality?

Do I expect someone else to solve my problems? Even if I need help, am I willing to accept it?

Does my vote only pertain to my interests?

Am I willing to vote if the cost to me personally will benefit someone else?

How do those who agree with me live the rest of their life? How do those who disagree with my live the rest of their life?

Do I know anyone personally who strongly disagrees with me? Is it a problem if I only surround myself with people who think like me?

How does this candidate represent me to the watching world? How do they embody my view of how the world should operate?

If everyone was as informed as I am, would I be comfortable with the democratic process?

Am I willing to change? Am I willing to change if presented a compelling argument?

Am I seeking out an argument or a solution?

Is my vote an isolated action or a part of a life aimed in a congruent direction?

If it is true that no vote is a perfect solution, am I glossing over the negative sides of my cause or candidate?

If it is true that no vote is a perfect solution, am I willing to fight against the negative sides of my cause or candidate?

Is my support conditional?

Or am I willing to exhibit fidelity to my cause or candidate while challenging their short comings?

What have I ignored in the past? Will I ignore it the next time?

I believe the citizen asks these questions and thoughtfully, honestly considers the implications of what they reveal. Give it a shot.

(Also, I need to mention, I have amended a previous post to make space for the exception. I was wrong to paint with such a broad stroke, even if to make a point. You can read that here.)

3rd Party Politics & Consumerism

by Sam Melden

For what I am about to attempt to argue, it is important to cite a very important source. A few years ago now, I read a book by John McKnight & Peter Block. In “An Abundant Community” they lay out a way of understanding our role in our communities and has been one of the most helpful and profound ideas I have read in a long, long time. The idea is simply based on their definition of and distinction between a citizen and a consumer. They write:

“A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy… It is one who chooses to create the life, the neighborhood, the world from their own gifts and the gifts of others.   A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life. This act of surrender goes by many names: client, patient, student, audience, fan, or shopper. All customers, not citizens. Consumerism is not about shopping, but about the transformation of citizens into consumers.”

I just love that. A citizen is a creative force in the world. A consumer looks to obtain what others have toiled over.

The citizen puts their hand in the dirt, often their own dirt, realizing the solution to their problems are found within themselves and those around them. The consumer waits with conditioned expectation that a savior dressed as a salesmen will come knocking and then they will have what they need.

When faced with a problem the citizen holds the line, wades into the tension of it all and attempts to create a way forward. The consumer on the other hand, feeling lack and want, wonders why no one has solved this problem for them.

The citizen feels their responsibility to fix it. The consumer feels entitled to a solution.

With that in mind, allow me to submit this idea: A pre-occupation with and attraction to a 3rd party as an answer to your political discontent is an act of consumerism and is not the posture of a citizen.

Now, that may seem harsh, but I think it’s true.

There isn’t a third party savior coming to rescue you from the right or left. There isn’t a middle way, politically, that will garner necessary attention to solve your notion of what is wrong with our current two party system. (Also, a quick aside: There are plenty fractions within each party this year… so in fact you already have an expansive set of ideologies to align with if you are interested in creating the solution to your own problems, like a citizen does.)

So, what would a citizen do?

I believe a citizen would put their hand in the dirt, often their own local dirt, and realize the solution to their problems are found within themselves and those around them.

The citizen, when faced with a problem, would hold the line, wade into the tension of it all and attempt to create a way forward.

The citizen would feel their responsibility fix it.

I believe a citizen would look at two parties, however imperfect, and figure out which they align with more and attempt to create an even better version of that party by getting involved. Hand in the dirt involved.

There is a way forward after all. It just isn’t necessarily as easy as a couple of dudes claiming to be the perfect compromise.

Because what we want isn’t another option. What we want is a better option. And a citizen knows that the process of finding a better option often begins within, while a consumer simply shops around.

We must realize if the current set of options aren’t working for us, another option isn’t the answer. We need to fix, heal, and restore the current set of options. And, that, takes work and will probably require every citizen to lend a hand.

UPDATE: After several conversations and consideration, I think this post was a bit too one sided. And, while I am comfortable with going to extremes to make a point, I left a few thoughtful citizens behind. There are wonderful, thoughtful people working every day to try to create the party and ideology they want to see to help create the world they want to see. They are absolutely citizens and to concede to voting for a major party would in fact be consumeristic of them. In this way I am thankful for their citizenry. The rest of this post and my larger point still applies to most of the current context in which we find ourselves.

Next week: A list of questions a citizen asks themselves before they vote.

A Few Words About The Last Few Weeks

by Sam Melden

I’ve been thinking about how different people deal with the issues we’ve all been faced with over the past few weeks. From Orlando to Alton Sterling to Philando Castile to officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge and so many other tragedies… we all deal with these things. One way or another, we process them, we talk about them, we all do something to respond.

So, a few thoughts…

I’ve been thinking about empathy.

In the midst of our impulse to reduce people to politics we are so easily seduced to argument and debate in the place of mourning, understanding, or simple silence.

I have a friend, who’s a cop, who had a brother who was a cop, until his brother was killed in the line of duty. Every single time I read the stories and watch the viral video accounts… I think of him. When I read all of these stories about how “bad” police officers are, I think of him. Sometimes I even talk to him or other police officers I know to hear their voice in the midst of these stories.

I have another friend who I spent some time with last week or so and we talked about race in our country. He’s black and he has children. He talked to me about his personal experience, how he has to drive differently than me simply because of the hue of our skin. He talked to me about what he will talk to his son about. How the list of do’s and don’t’s he will have to cover with his son is growing. And every single time I read the stories and watch the viral video accounts… I think of him, and his son.

And I have many more friends, on every which side of these issues we read about. And every single time I watch the videos and read the headlines, I think of them. I try to think of how they might be experiencing this, and I sit. I mourn. I try to mourn with them… but often I also find myself morning for all of us.

I have also been thinking about faith communities. There are groups of people all over the world that come together at regular times because of a shared belief of how the world should operate, how human beings should interact and behave. Some shared understanding of human existence, a common experience with the divine. So, naturally when these groups gather and world around them is so violently out of line with how they think the world should work, those gatherings would reflect that dissonance, right? Not necessarily. This is actually my first thought to offer to any person of faith dealing with these headlines in our day and time.

If your community of faith doesn’t make space for you to work this out, talk about or process the things you are dealing with… you are being cheated. You are attending, and faith leaders are welcoming you in to their space, but they aren’t leading you well. If you can’t connect your heartbreak with their sermon or homily or liturgy, you aren’t getting what you should. If you don’t have a sacred space to work out your deepest desires for the restoration of all things in the midst of fear and trembling, that is a problem. Now, I understand these gatherings are meant to be set apart spaces… but, they also happen in the world as it is today. And if you go to your church, synagogue, or mosque and it feels like no one in here is aware of what’s happening out there… something is wrong.

And this is connected to my other thought about people of faith in times like these. It’s simple really. If your response to these type of tragedies are in anyway connected to your faith, in anyway rooted in your theology, and they don’t in some way improve the situation here, today on this planet for those in need of rescue and relief… may I suggest that you are cheating us.

Your theology is empty and your faith is a mirage.

Don’t talk about tomorrow when people hurt today.

Don’t talk about how things were when people are dealing with how things are.

Don’t talk about praying for peace when the rest of the world is mourning and scrambling and protesting and organizing and legislating and working to carve peace out of the side of the mountain of injustice that seems to be growing in front of them everyday.

If your understanding of faith doesn’t lead you to action… it’s dead. And that won’t cut it, because the last we need is more death.

The Opposite Of Bad

by Sam Melden

The opposite of bad leadership isn’t anything other than good leadership. Let’s say that differently… The opposite of bad leadership… is good leadership. Nothing else gets you there.

In a tough environment, only good leadership will do.Fear will try to coax you toward the safe play, telling you not to risk the chance of failure, don’t show yourself to be incapable. And in fact, those fearful moments are the ones that matter the most. That place or conversation or conflict that every leader deals with where our chest gets tight and our blood speeds up.

And it is in that moment, that the opposite of bad leadership is not staying quiet so no one disagrees. It is not walking away, dodging around or shrinking down.

In that moment, the opposite of the behavior you may be tempted toward, is good leadership. Where you don’t ignore your role, your call, or your task. You simply step up and do the next right thing. The fear is set aside and you take the right step forward.

So often, it seems as if people are running businesses, parenting their children, interacting with donors and implementing public policy based on what they think will not be bad, rather than considering what is good.

Good is what matters. Good should be our goal. Trying to not be bad won’t work. Actually, trying not to be something is never a good idea.

Not Buying It

by Sam Melden

Yesterday I went to the Action is NOW community round table discussion at the Frederick Douglass Center. The unity in the room was inspiring, the stories were significant and the call to action was challenging. And… I walked away feeling so committed to erase lines, to collaborate, to work together and support the work already being done. That was one of the main messages.

I also walked away feeling more strongly committed to act on my belief, not just say, that Black Lives Matter. I am inspired by people I heard speak yesterday. My friend Reggie Williams poured out his heart in that space. When said he was tired I knew I had to spend my energy to help hold his arms up. I’ve never felt his tired. So, I’ll be taking small steps to move forward on support and action and change. Man, just so much to reflect on from that gathering.


And then I read the paper this morning. And I got to this political cartoon. And I want to say: I reject it. Messages like this in media are damaging. This is not simply saying that “Blue Lives Matter” or that what happened in Dallas was an awful, unjust tragedy. This cartoon, in the way it is carefully and intentionally constructed is putting one loss over the other. It is literally crossing out the cry of a people. It is trying to fool you in suggesting that the word they just crossed out is somehow included in the two words that follow. It may be technically true, but it’s not right. It’s not helpful. It’s not creative. It’s not generating the type of life and imagination we need. It’s pulling us into old ways of thinking. And I’m not buying it… anymore.

Barbarous Ancestors

by Sam Melden

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” - Thomas Jefferson

While in DC last week I got up early one day and took off for a quiet run. It was to explore the mall by myself, and take in the different monuments without the pressure of moving along with the rest of a group. It worked out perfectly. I loved the MLK & FDR monuments. I stood where Dr. King stood when he stood in that symbolic shadow. It was really cool.

But before that, the first monument I found, was Jefferson’s. I ran up the steps with no one in sight. And as I walked around that enormous statue, reading the inscriptions I found this quote. This was just under one week after the Orlando shooting. It struck me that while I was taking this picture, our entire country was dusting off their 2nd Amendment entitlements and loading their freedom arguments.

Think about that quote. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was open to the fact that as we evolve, and as things change the very rules that make up our society should change as well. It was quite a moment. The pillars of this monument standing tall and strong, and yet in that moment the words etched in stone lead me to a more progressive, adaptive understanding of the world and how to continue to form this great society of ours.

So please forgive me if I shrug off your 2nd Amendment argument. We aren’t talking about muskets and militias. We live in the day of the drone. If your government wants to come for you, your handgun won’t save you.

Please forgive me if I don’t buy into the myth of redemptive violence. I’m not dreaming of “good guys with guns” standing their ground.

As a society we grow, and evolve. We gain new understandings and new insights. And then we need leaders to stand up and hear the call. We need leaders who are willing to risk their political approval for the sake of the marginalized. The coat from our boyhood doesn’t fit anymore… time for something new.

A Call From...

by Sam Melden

Why am I doing this? Why start a podcast? While the first Episode with Kevin was meant to share the thoughts behind this project, I wanted to share a bit more here.

First a few beliefs I have.…

I believe that when each of us, based on our own desires, the noblest of our self interests, begin to offer up that work, that creation, that company, that organization, that song or poem or sermon. When we decide to take the next leap, to have that difficult conversation, run for office, quit our job to stay home with our kids or pick ourselves up and find a job to take care of our kids… the place from which we do those things is often very similar to what leads our neighbor as well. We have more in common than we know. And wherever we are working together, for the collective benefit, for the common good, that’s where I want to be. And that’s the type of conversation I want to have. Talking about what moves us all ahead, together.

I also believe that “Why?” is a better question than “What?” And, so often, we settle for the what. Details are interesting, and certainly helpful markers as we walk the path, but for me, with this project, I want to go a bit deeper and explore with some different questions.

So, why a podcast? Two questions and another belief…

Seth Godin asks 2 questions when starting something new I find extremely challenging and helpful. 1) Is it Generous? 2) Can it fail? - I hope this is a generous endeavor. I simply want to document these conversations I often find myself in and share them and watch them grow into new and deeper connections and ideas for more people around me. That sounds quite exciting. And, of course… I know this could fail. I’ve failed at a podcast before.

Also, I believe technology is a tool to serve our greatest goals and deepest desires. So, I asked myself, how can technology help me share conversations? There are many different options. What I have in “A Call From…” is the simplest and most sustainable option for me. I’m not an audio engineer, I don’t have a studio and I know just enough about Garage Band to be dangerous. A few friends helped me with the intro & podcast set up and now I can take it from here. Record phone calls, ask good questions, share the conversations. Pretty simple.

You can find A Call From here on iTunes. Or here on Soundcloud

Thanks for taking a chance with me. I hope you enjoy.

PS - I spent a few minutes on launch day live streaming on FB to talk about it… You can watch that here.

Two Lessons

by Sam Melden

Almost from day 1, the Democratic presidential candidates bragged about their civility with one another. Compared to the Republicans, acting like school boys on the playground, they were upstanding citizens here to “talk about the issues.”

Just a few months later the Republicans are having meetings aimed at compromise. They have hopes for a united front. And it’s the Democrats fearing a drama-filled convention that only increases the perception of a divided party.

A few take aways…

Lesson one: The bare minimum isn’t a trust worthy metric to measure success. It will turn on you and ask for more. As it should.

Think about this: The Democrats were bragging about not calling each other names? What a high bar. Why not celebrate actually showing up to the debate too?

Lesson two: Define yourself by who you are, not who you aren’tI recently read, “Who you aren’t isn’t interesting” - I love that line, it is so true.

Your Reaction Is Revealing

by Sam Melden

Why are we so drawn to the sinking ship? When the conversation goes downhill, and the comments start to turn south, why do we try to jump on like its the last time down the sledding hill?

Why is it easier to join the negativity, and engage with the lazy cynic instead of holding our ground and considering that we might have something to learn, or even at the very least something new to encounter?

Over and over again, we have the chance to respond or react. To respond is to take it in, hear the critique and examine it. A reaction often comes after assuming the worst, half listening, and finishing their thought. We’ve heard this before, we know what comes next and what we say next… we barely need to think. It solidifies our rightness and their wrongness.

Whether in politics, business, in our marriage or faith community… how we respond to our critic often reveals much more about us than the validity of the critique.

Lists Aren't Enough

by Sam Melden

I love this time of year.

The week between Christmas and the first day of the New Year is special. Its unwritten sacredness lets everyone get a moment to refresh. We all need to recalibrate a bit. People vacation at different times, even celebrate holidays differently, but for the most part… we all shut down between Christmas and the New Year. It’s wonderful and needed.

What we don’t need, however, is another list. A list of the best music, movies, internet memes or even lists looking back at the best lists.

You’ve seen these lists, right? All over the internet, for the sake of advertising, everyone is looking back and keeping score. We are rating our experiences. Artists and entrepreneurs alike have spent months and years creating and crafting something to offer and at the end of a calendar year people will sum it up in a few sentences and try to compare this app to that one… all for the sake of the list. Well, lists aren’t enough.

Lists aren’t the gateway to true reflection. And reflection is the invitation of this week. Lists attempt to trivialize looking back. When we sum up the past year so we can rank our experiences we cheat ourselves.

Reflection isn’t a consumer good.

The reason I love this week is we all get space to ask good questions. And, if we are willing… we have space to listen and learn. Looking back lets us do that.

Then the New Year arrives. And all we want to do, and all we should do… is look forward and dream. But, imagine the dreaming without the reflecting. Imagine the vision for a future without a deep connection to what we just learned. It’s empty, isn’t it?

We all want to know what our “Best” Nine Instagram photos were for 2015. I get it. But what if we asked a few more questions?

Who did you learn the most from last year?

How are you a different co-worker? A different boss?

Did you lose someone dear to you recently?

How are you better for having known them?

How are you better toward those you know now because you lost them?

What was your biggest victory? Biggest defeat?

How were those two experiences similar?

What is your biggest regret from 2015?

How will you prevent a repeat in 2016?

We can talk about who made the best movie, or who’s album was better — but what does that have to do with you? Reflection is about making space to look at yourself. And with another year in the books there is a lot to take in.

I love this time of year. Here’s to a fantastic 2016!

Also, if you took the time to read this, I want to say… Thank you. I appreciate it. And, I would definitely suggest you read this as well, and perhaps subscribe to everything that comes from On Being. It’s a wonderful source.

The Win and the Why

by Sam Melden

The thirst for competition and victory are fueled by our values, not the other way around. We can not afford to fish for values and fabricate conviction simply because it helps us win. Because, in the long haul, we will not win.

After a while people ask themselves: “Why did I get into this to begin with?” Sometimes we need to ask ourselves to reach back and pull up that memory or set of experiences that lead us to embark upon the path we are on. That sometimes is probably more often than we think and that memory is probably more central to who we are than we know.

The truth is… an organization, movement, company or campaign is treading water, at best, when they only focus on the win instead of the why.

The hunger to win in business is cancerous if it leads you to cheat stakeholders, abuse employees and take shortcuts. You will have lost your values for the sake of winning the bottom line. Obvious right? Well, it is just as true in political campaigns.

Our values drive our action. We must lead from a place of conviction and then offer up the vision we see for the world around us. And when that world changes, our assessment of the best way forward may change as well… win or lose.

More Importantly

by Sam Melden

Yesterday the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, came out and directly commented on the ridiculous, hateful and dangerous ideas we are all seeing spewed from Donald Trump these days. He said, “This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for, and more importantly, not what this country stands for.”

Did you catch that? It’s tucked away, but it’s there. He said “more importantly.” He said it is more important that what Trump is talking about completely violates the set of values that the entire country upholds. Ryan said there is a set of values, principles, a way of seeing the world that is more important than what his party stands for.

Can you imagine?

Can you imagine what our political conversations would look like if we let go of the infallibility of our positions. If we acknowledged we’re all just working this out as we go?

What if political leaders had the humility to admit that their particular ideology was simply their best attempt at understanding a way forward?

Ideological humility. An evolving understanding of what is best. This takes real strength and we need more of it from our top leaders.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics

by Sam Melden

Political conversations go a lot of different directions. Not just left or right, but often these conversations can head toward darkness or toward the light.

One of the most interesting things about being involved in a strange, rushed, non-traditional mayoral campaign, over the past few months, was trying to intentionally observe what we talk about when we talk about politics. It really is all over the map, and that makes sense. “Politics” are everywhere. It is everywhere. In schools, a boardroom, the pulpit, alive at our kitchen tables and even in our city halls - politics is all around us. So, first, it’s important to say when I talk about politics I am specifically talking about politics related to governance. Laws, elections, people… especially people.

“Politics, which is the use of power to order our life together, is a profoundly human enterprise. - Parker Palmer

These words from Palmer stand in pretty stark contrast to some of the conversations and interactions I’ve seen in this last election cycle.

Now, what we mean when we say “human” is also important to talk about. When I say it, I am referring to the best versions of ourselves. To be fully human, is to be fully alive, directed, passionately concerned about one another and wholeheartedly believing yourself to be a part of the human family. I believe that is what it is to be completely human. So, politics then is a pursuit of our best selves, collectively. There are a few things this brings to mind…

  • Elected representatives are called to serve and sacrifice in pursuit of that collective “humanness.” Power is the means, not the end.

  • The rules in a political setting should not be less than the rules in another area. The bar in fact may need to be higher.

  • The thirst for competition and victory are fueled by our values. We do not attempt to find principals we can stomach and then attempt to regurgitate as values so that we can win.

  • Those involved in politics are responsible for creating an environment that is more inclusive and inviting to the body they represent.

  • Disagreement, conflict and the art of the respectful back and forth are exactly what allows us to find our best selves - and therefore we need more apology, more changing our minds, more forgiveness for and from our public leaders.

  • The 60-second time limit in response to a 90-second question that was really 1 question with 3 follow ups isn’t helping anyone. We don’t need more “gotcha” guys.

I think there is a lot to talk about when we talk about politics. So, I’m going to start using this space to share some thoughts. If you’re interested, thanks for following along.


by Sam Melden

“Today I’m flying low and I’m not saying a word. I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.” - Mary Oliver.

My friend posted that Oliver quote with a picture of her snow covered front yard this morning. It’s a beautiful scene with a wonderful quote.

Then, I have this other friend who is a journalist and she was experiencing this snowy day quite differently. Under a Level 3 snow emergency she still has to go to work. She has to go outside, carve and chisel her way out of her driveway and then drive in terrible conditions to get to the job. Because, her line of work is considered “essential.” And the rules are: under a Level 3 all “non-essential” employees have to stay home. Non-essential. I love that someone decided to use that language to describe who should and shouldn’t be on the roads under such conditions.

Because, sometimes, we all need to be reminded we are not essential.

The goals, ideas and projects we are all working on can wait. The mad rush of a Monday morning can always be brought to a halt. Your hustle can be slowed. Your emails can pile up. Your deadlines can be bent. Your calendar can be shuffled. All of those tasks, those very important & essential to do’s… just aren’t that important and essential.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to juggle to do’s like a circus clown. I love lining up calendars and plotting out tasks. My video game of choice is “Inbox Zero.” I love to be productive, efficient, blah, blah blah. Which is why this reminder is so important. The work I do, the stuff on my “plate” is not nearly as essential as I think it is.

And, one more thing… this reminder about being non-essential also brings a wonderful invitation. When the world shuts down around us we are given the opportunity to attend to the work within us. The work that is essential.

After all, what is often true about those to do lists and meetings and emails and phone calls is that when while we run toward them it is possible we are running away from something else. Leaving behind the most essential work of all… the work that no one else could do. This “Level-3-non-essential” reality also reminds us that we have a small handful of very, very essential “to-do’s.” There is only one person who can be the spouse in your marriage, the parent to your children, the citizen who represents your mailing address out in the community… only one. So, while we get to put down the hurry of Monday, and let the voodoos of ambition sleep… we also get to pick up those things that are essential.

And hopefully, when the snow emergency is dropped down a notch, the roads are safe again and the pace starts to pick up… hopefully we don’t soon forget the still small voice that settled in with the winter storm. The voice that tells us what is, and what isn’t essential.

One Of The Highest Forms Of Love

by Sam Melden

On my run Saturday afternoon I listened to the latest episode of “On Being” and wound up crying. Crying while running - bad idea. John Lewis spoke with a deeply humble voice full of real life experience that calls his listener directly toward love.

Hearing his stories of being a young man in civil rights marches will arrest you. And, once he has you, sitting there completely in awe of what a life of light can realize (and what a life of darkness can inflict), then he reminds you of the reason… love. Pure, simple, courageous, bold & determined, planned & orchestrated love.

It was good to be reminded of love. Lewis took a few detours in the interview to make sure we don’t buy the popular concept of a soft & passive emotion we are often presented. No, the love he refers to is strong. Like a march toward danger, it looks the offender in the eye and sees humanity over evil. It drives out fear and calls us all toward our best selves. It creates “a non-violent revolution” and we can’t afford to lose sight of it. So, today, of all days… this love is worth thinking about.

Sit with it, let it motivate & change you. Walk with John Lewis as he shows us one of the highest forms of love.

My Grandfather's Watch

by Sam Melden

I wear my grandfather’s watch.

It’s an Accutron from Bulova with a simple gold face. The underside has his name, Don Roepke, engraved along with dates that mark 25 years of service at the factory where he worked. My mother gave it to me just after he passed away in September 2013.

At first I couldn’t figure out how to make the days of the week line up with the date. The clear, quartz cover was very scratched and even had a small crack in it. I got that fixed. I also replaced the golden, stretchy metal band with one made of brown leather. It’s not worth hundreds of dollars, but it’s a nice watch and it means a lot to me.

But you know, even with all the tweaks and changes I’ve made, there is still this sense that I am wearing Grandpa’s watch. I didn’t get a new watch. It was someone else’s and now I simply look after it. And, if I can take care of it, keep it clean and working, I might be able to pass it on one day, too. I have been thinking recently; my grandpa’s watch reminds me of the mindset of really great leaders.

“Leader” is unfortunately a confusing word in our culture. Most of us are well aware of self-centered, incompetent and even corrupt people who have grafted the title of leader to their persona without first earning the required respect, trust and credibility. We are tempted to associate “leader” with other words like success, prestige, money, fame, etc., losing the true meaning of the word. There are other words though. Other words that describe other leaders. One of my favorite authors and leaders, Parker J. Palmer, defines leadership this way: “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light upon some part of the world, and upon the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell.”

The reason my grandfather’s watch on my wrist reminds me of great leadership is because I believe the best leaders are stewards, not owners. Trust has been given, influence granted, and the leader is faced with the question of how to handle this gift. Does she consider this status as something to be used for her own benefit, or does she understand the “here today, gone tomorrow” component of leadership? Is the goal to get his name in lights, or create a light-filled reality for whoever will take his seat next? As leaders, do we hold our influence with tight fists focused on scarcity? Or do we accept the open-handed invitation of abundance?

As I said earlier, we are all too familiar with negative leadership examples. However, there are great examples of leadership as well, and we can especially spot them when we look for those who are living as stewards, those who build something that stretches much further than themselves.

It’s like the CEO who relocates his company headquarters Downtown to help accomplish much more than simply running a profitable business.

Or the pope, in his first address, saying to the world: “Pray for me.”

Or the school superintendent who walks the halls engaging each seventh-grader he sees as if they were a board member or a voter in levy season.

Or the neighbors who care for the house they are renting because they respect the neighborhood and the landlord.

Owners use, spend and consume their way forward. Stewards preserve, share and collaborate their way into the future. Our entire conversation regarding conservation and environmental responsibility comes down to understanding stewardship. When we understand the idea of stewardship we support our schools long after our own kids have graduated.

Stewardship is tantamount to good leadership. And at The Center for Servant Leadership, we believe understanding yourself as a steward, not an owner, of the influence, power and status you currently hold is a key step in becoming a servant leader. This is an aspect of our work: teaching leaders how to uncover stewardship in their lives.

Stewardship is inspiring. When I do finally hand off grandpa’s watch to the next person, they will understand that it was given to me and now I give it to them. It is not theirs to own. They are simply looking after it for a time.