I’ve had several early birthday gifts. The best tasting were the cookies my daughter Kathryn sent. Lindwood Jr. and I opened our hives and confirmed that all four of our queens are busy birthing. And last Thursday—best of all—about 75 people from around the world held an UnZoom to explore the confluence of Leading Causes of Life with Positive Deviance. It wasn’t designed as a birthday present, but it gives me more energy than if every one of my 40,000 bee daughters each baked me a cookie.
Five years ago a very unusual meeting gathered in the West Wing of the White House to explore how to align the assets of community to advance the health and well-being of all. The meeting was designed largely by Dr. Arvind Singhal using Liberating Structures. Unlike almost every other White House gathering before or since, this one did not know any answers in advance, only the question. And even more unusual, the question was not posed as a problem but opportunity. How much is possible?
A lot has changed.
Some of the same people gathered with dozens of others on Zoom to explore the same basic question of possibilities. How might the integrating ideas of the Leading Causes of Life and the toolkit of Positive Deviance turn on the lights about how much we have to work with? Not “even now” amid COVID, but because of what COVID is teaching us about how very much capacity we have to do things very differently when we choose. One might say that we are forced, but we see the same virus provoking many kinds of response, so obviously it is only posing the question. We humans are choosing to act, informed by different blends of fear, science and imagination.
I have written thousands of pages about one thing—life. I’m not a philosopher or academic, mostly a faith guy who sits near the door when I go to church. Through a winding path that took me from the basement of Oakhurst Baptist Church and Seeds Magazine in Atlanta and then through Africa I found myself at The Carter Center, leading an agenda called the Interfaith Health Program. When invited by Dr. Foege and Jimmy Carter, I deferred until I could try to preach a public health sermon. That sermon became the framework for Carter’s column in the very first issue of magazine in which he says, “we must make the choices that lead to life.”
We did then what we do now—encourage and connect leaders who love their communities like God intends—not because of COVID, opioids, or Diabetes or some other cause of death. Life.
From time to time, when Jimmy Carter couldn’t go somewhere, he might send me. Imagine the disappointment! In Milwaukee I showed up at a prestigious University of Wisconsin event on radical infant mortality disparities focused in the slender strip of neighborhoods where I’m sure COVID cases abound today.
Dr. David Williams, the eminent Adventist sociologist now at Harvard, was the first keynote speaker and I (who was not Jimmy Carter) the second. He spoke with stark clarity about race, health and death in the United States. He created a moral and spiritual moment, as accurate data often does, and then handed the microphone to me. I knew my PowerPoint of helpful programs was grossly inadequate, so I spoke the very first time about the leading causes of life. Actually, just the first four causes. Shortly thereafter, I was in Cape Town where Jim Cochrane added Agency, as any African would.
I reached out to Larry Pray to help me write the first book on The Leading Causes of Life, which we had hardly begun when he suffered one of his many strokes. The book began with Larry’s wonderful sentence, “life has a language.”
What’s the language for?
A few birthdays later Dr. Paul Laurienti of Wake Forest told us that nobody really needs Life language unless life is complex and dynamic. But it is. Ask a pangolin or a bee.
Life language flourishes in times of fundamental discontinuity and unthinkable challenge. This is when we must see—and talk about—how life actually works. Where do we work? The only place is amid the oddly wonderful, ever-muddling humans in what I came to call the boundary zones. Such zones are in between the domains of structure and certainty, settled power, and evidence-based this and that. That’s what you’re watching on CNN and out your window. Today, of course, we can see plainly that almost everything is in the boundary zone!
When we do not have words for life, we lose it. Not because some disease has stolen it, but because we have misplaced it. We literally forget what it looks like. We lost the words to even ask for help in finding it again.
Paul Laurienti described the five causes as tent poles that open up space for our collective imagination and dialogue so that we can find our way. You have to open up a space and hold it open long enough for us to figure out the right next steps that lead to life. In the crush of the pandemic, we need ventilators, masks, and sensible leaders to do the urgent and obvious things. Just past the bio-medical peak, we begin to need another kind of dialogue—about the life we now must craft with purpose and values that will give life a chance in the years ahead. COVID is not our last crisis. Others more profound are likely as the melting planet calls time on our silly fantasies. We must talk life while we have a chance to seek it.
How? Ah, that is what Positive Deviance is for.
And do we need it? On my birthday we have recorded 165,257 deaths from COVID around the world, 41,114 in my own country. This still pales before those quietly lost to HIV/AIDS (roughly 770,000 in 2018). And remember opioids? Tobacco? Diabetes? Suicide?
Heather Wood Ion knows an epidemic when she sees one. Commenting on the UnZoom she said: “we were reminded to trust our own human inheritance. We know what is needed to bring healing to the fragmented and yearning world around us. We know that there is around us all a web, invisible but unbreakable, that will bring us the nourishment we need if we are open and accepting of its vitality.”
The angel at Jesus tomb asked, “Why are you looking for life at the tomb?” Go search among the living. Find a vaccine. Elect an actual President. Plant a billion trees and some bee-friendly flowers. Go shop for a neighbor. Sing with your family.
Later today I’ll blow out enough birthday candles to start a tornado. TC has arranged for my scattered but blended family to sing happy birthday …. by Zoom.