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July 26, 2017

Kubu And Belonging

If you haven’t seen the film, “Kubu and the 2 Strings”, this post contains a lot of spoilers.

If you haven't seen the film, go see it. It moved me to tears, and I’m confident it will affect you similarly. I've been teaching emotionally resonant storytelling to leaders for seven years now, and I recognize the time-tested growth journey that the main hero, Kubu, experiences.

“Kubu and the 2 Strings” is a stop-motion animation film that tells the story of a boy who goes on a classic hero's journey in mythical Japan.

The film reminded me that in many of our favorite epic stories, the heroes begin by wondering about where they belong. Their epic journeys test them physically, mentally, and spiritually. A great many lessons are learned through these challenges.

After overcoming many challenges, they discover that they belong at home where they started. But they newly understand the place, the relationships there, and the way they can serve that community in a new way.

In the first act of “Kubu and the 2 Strings”, our hero doesn't think he fits into his home village. He must get home before sundown each evening and cannot participate in the ritual festivities that go on in the night. Villagers love his performance art stories in the town square, but he can never deliver story endings. They berate him for it.

Sure enough, the first time that he is out after sunset to participate in the lantern ceremony, he discovers he is being hunted by mythical beings. These beings destroy the village and harm the villagers in their pursuit of Kubu. He escapes only through the intervention of his mother and her previously hidden magic. We learn that clearly, Kubu isn't like the rest of the village.

When he wakes up after the ordeal, he discovers a magical monkey (elder) who serves as his protector and instructs him to seek out the magical armor (tokens) he needs to protect himself. On the journey, he also teams up with a man who has been cursed into the form of a giant beetle. The three characters overcome deadly traps in order to collect the armor. Along the way, the monkey and the beetle are both killed, but only after Kubu learns that they were his real parents in a new magical form. He discovers he was in fact already with his family, and neither he nor we knew it.

Kubu alone is left to face the moon king who hunts him. Their final showdown is in the village that Kubu left in the first act. He struggles to win the battle with the gold armor, but after a moment of insight, he puts the armor away and picks up the magical instrument his mother bequeathed to him. He understands that his role is to protect all the villagers, not just himself, and to grow compassion within his enemy, so the fight is no longer worth fighting.

Kubu’s story is a journey to discover his place, protecting the village as they welcomed, encouraged, and supported him for so many years. Another way to say the same thing is that our hero discovered that he belongs where he originally was. He just needed to know how to create that sense of belonging for himself and others. He does this by seeing their relationship to him and stepping up to protect them. They are a community that belongs to one another.

In classic epic journeys and in our own lives, learning how to belong typically includes learning to see that others help us to be the person we want to be. We help neighbors become what they want to be. We all share mutual concern for the welfare of one another and we learn how to serve one another. No matter how big the adventures or how dangerous the challenges, belonging is where we know others care about us and we care about them. That situation may be true from the very beginning, but if it is not recognized, we don't feel the belonging.

The true hero discovers that she belongs where she started, and she knows how to create that for others. The world is waiting for more heroes.

July 1, 2017

Do Your People Know They Belong? (How?)

When leaders ask me how to make their community stronger, the first question that jumps to my mind is, "Do your people know that they belong?"

As a leader, you may think you know who belongs. Some of your members may be confident that they belong. But are you confident that everyone knows that they belong?

This belonging can be expressed formally or informally.

Belonging comes about in part from these four things:

1) We know that others share our values (at least those values that are pertinent to the community).
2) We receive (and/or offer) invitations to participate.
3) We have evidence that others care about our well-being.
4) We believe that we can grow in a way we want, with community support.

There are certainly other elements to belonging, but these are critically important. Do your members or prospective members have a way to see these things?

Do you have a ritual, formal or informal, that lets each member know themselves, and the other members as well, that someone fully belongs? I can't tell you what a difference this will make.

Belonging rituals can be long and involved, with robes and fire-lit halls and weird chants. And they can be as simple as a quiet conversation between two people explicitly acknowledging the full embrace into the community.

When I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer there were several moments that I can reflect on that let me know that I belonged. There was the call that invited me to serve in Zambia, the moment I started orientation in Washington, DC. And the moment I got off the plane in Southern Africa.

However, there was also a formal ceremony in Zambia in which a Peace Corps pin was given to me and a state department officer shook my hand. Obviously I knew I belonged in the Peace Corps before that moment, but it still sticks in my memory as a transition from trainee to full volunteer. It provides punctuation to my experience.

How do your members know they belong now? If you have no ritual, make the implicit belonging explicit. You’ll strengthen the belonging immeasurably, simply by doing this.

May 2, 2017

Boundaries are for Safety

I understand why many leaders I talk to seem to be afraid of creating boundaries. They don't want to emulate the jerks they've met who create elitist, snobby, almost pointless boundaries simply to keep others out.

Earlier I discussed that it is important that you know, at some level, who is inside your community and who is outside. This can sometimes be a fairly fuzzy line.

I know of a neighborhood that hosted an annual community block party with too much food and drinks, a fire pit, and lots of friendly conversation. Over the years, some people moved away and others moved in. Of course the newcomers became part of the community, but what about the those who moved away? It got fuzzy. They (informally) decided that once a member, always a member, so party invitations went out locally and sometimes to towns, states, and countries far away.

Membership can be informal. The boundary can be crossed through self-selecting visitors. There still must be a sense that not everyone is in your community at any time. Communities are bound by values. Anyone not sharing your values, really shouldn't be in your community. (Valuing the residents in your neighborhood counts!)

Boundaries can be used to create a safe space inside for members. Members want to have a place where others share their values, where they don't have to explain themselves, and where they know others want to help them grow. I call this a sacred space. You can recognize it because others are willing to be vulnerable. In this context, vulnerability means that we are willing to share the parts of us that we fear may make others reject us when they see them.

To create a sacred space where vulnerability can be shared, we need to hold the boundary where our members feel safe. This means we protect the space for those who share our community’s values. This doesn't have to be every event or space our community gathers, but for deep belonging we need to have a time and place where members know they are safe among members. This means not any visitor can swing by and observe and/or judge at any time.

For example, my friend Bjorn is part of a Tibetan Buddhist community. At each of the weekly meetings, visitors are welcome, even given hot tea at the end of the Dharma talks. However, on the weekend retreats, attendance is limited to the students who have achieved a certain level of understanding in the tradition. The head teacher prefers to avoid using that time to convince visitors of the teaching merit. These sacred space weekend retreats are times when real depth and vulnerability can be explored in the tradition.

Here’s another example: My friend Adam is part of an informal executive chef community in San Francisco. They make meals together and welcome their friends who like to eat. The kitchen, however, is a sacred space. Only chefs are welcome inside. They don't want to spend their evening explaining what they are doing or training novice cooks. It is their time to celebrate their enthusiasm amongst professionals.

Further, they have some dinners to which only chefs are invited. Adam explained that if a first time visiting chef does not demonstrate adequate investment or creativity, they are not invited back. Those dinners are sacred space for those who value quality and creativity in pushing the boundaries of culinary arts.

Are you creating sacred spaces for your community? Is there a time and place that your members can gather where they know they can be vulnerable, when they can share what they care about, and when all want to support one another in growth? If not, there is real opportunity to bring the belonging to the next level.

March 26, 2017

Belonging in the Surf

One of my most magical memories is from when I was about 29 years old and moonlight surfing on Waikiki Beach with my cousin Kelly Chang and dear friend Hugh Khim.

On one of my visits to my family city of Honolulu, Kelly and Hugh had loaded up their cars with surfboards and had taken me into the Waikiki waves on a full moon night. While Waikiki is famous for the wall-to-wall sunbathing tourists that crowd one of the most beautiful beaches in the world during the day, that night we had just about all the water to ourselves.

I remember sitting on that longboard, smelling the Pacific water, feeling the tropical breeze, and admiring the hotel lights. After many, many, failed attempts, I think I caught one or two waves that night. Truly transcendent moments.

I remember thinking how powerful it was to be invited there with them, for them to share this special experience with me, late into the night.

There are at least two principles that make this such a meaningful memory for me.

The first is that we were within a safe “inner ring.” In this context, an inner ring is a safe place among people who share relationships beyond competition and judgment. This was a time and experience only shared with people who already appreciated and respected one another. While in the future others may be invited, that night we already knew we were safe with one another.

The second is a bit more profound. Through my cousin Kelly, I felt deeply connected to that place. My family has made its home in Honolulu for at least four generations. I was participating in a long line connected to me enjoying that space and appreciating its magnificence. Had we been on any other island in the world, even if we had been surfing, even if there had been tropical breezes, even if there were bright hotel lights glinting on the water, I would not have felt that connection.

Meaningfulness comes when we feel connected to the past and/or the future. That place, that experience in a relationship I had with those hosts were meaningful to me. In fact, I hope I can share the grandeur of Hawaii with the next generation in my family.

When we are helping others belong, connecting experiences to the past can change a fun event to something profound. Then we get to be the generation that connects those who come next with us.

How are you letting others know the way they are connected to a place no matter how unglamorous or changed it has become?

March 12, 2017

I Belong Here

I grew up in Southern California, but most of my extended family lived in Honolulu, Hawaii.

As a child, I would accompany my parents on family visits. In my 20s, I started visiting on my own.

Among other family members, I would visit my cousins Kelly and Kevin, who would introduce me to their friends, fellow artists, and church communities.

For those who don't know, my heritage is half Asian and half European. I have what is commonly called a classic Hapa look of people with my ethnic mix. Wherever I go, people ask, "Where are you from?" I tell them: California.

However true, this is not usually an acceptable answer.

From Lusaka, Zambia, to New York City, people want to hear where my 19th-century ancestors lived. When I explain, they often tell me how "interesting" my mix is. I’m not even sure what that means, except, “You sure aren’t like other people I know.”

As I was born in the 1970s, many people I met assumed I was the product of military sexual promiscuity who had made it to United States. In college, one of my roommates told me that he had always thought that people of mixed race like me happened only as an "accident maybe."

Hawaii is a place that’s experienced well over 100 years of immigration, profound eastern and western ethnic diversity, and countless generations of intermarriage. It is the only place I’ve ever been where people don't ask where I'm from.

When Kelly, Kevin, and my Oahu friends Hugh and Tim took me hiking or surfing, to church or to beach picnics, to backyard barbecues or to hula performances, I didn't have to explain myself. They knew what it is to be part of and within an ethnically diverse culture so enmeshed that it has created something wholly new and unrecognizable to the rest of the world.

Now you understand why I felt like I “belonged” when I was in Hawaii. There were the invitations, smiles, and listening. Most importantly, I didn't have to explain myself. I was accepted for who I was, no matter whether I was "interesting" or not.

Are you creating a place where people don’t have to explain themselves? Are they accepted for who they are even when they just don’t look the same? If you can do this, then you have created a special type of belonging indeed.

I wonder, when people visit your culture, who has to explain themselves and who doesn’t?