I took this amazing mental photograph of the Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1983. Though I didn’t have a camera to record it, the image stays with me. The trouble is my mental imprint is not exactly what most would admire. It would seem easy to take a great picture in this majestic setting. The challenge is to be very selective about what you include in the frame.
That summer I served as the director for a cross-country camping tour for teenagers. I was 23 years old and this was my first serious leadership challenge. With some previous experience behind me in a similar setting and a bit of additional training, I was entrusted with 42 14-year-olds, most of whom had never been camping; five counselors who were all recent college graduates; a cook who also served as my assistant director and drove our support vehicle; a tour bus and a bus driver who loved country music to the distress of many of the students; $28,000 in travelers checks, which took me several hours to sign in advance; and two humongous binders of detailed information about every stop on the six-week tour.
Yellowstone was a planned destination on an impressive itinerary. But, by this time in a journey that originated in New York, our intrepid campers could be heard saying things like, “If you’ve seen one mountain, you’ve seen them all. Can we stop at a mall on the way?” Despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm, we poured out of the bus into a parking lot adjacent to Lookout Point, which boasts a picturesque view of the Lower Falls.
I stood quietly along the wall truly impressed by the natural beauty. Yet, I could not separate the distant vision from the immediate surroundings. The stone platform on which we stood was crowded with visitors. The trash cans were overflowing. The fumes from tour buses made it difficult to breathe. The cacophony of sounds coming from parents scolding children, students laughing in small groups and the overall rumble of conversation was discordant.
I longed for three magic tools. A visual eraser, a mute button, and a clothes pin to eliminate the sights, sounds and smells that detracted from an inspiring setting – one that deserved more reverence and respect. I felt robbed of an opportunity to experience something transcendent as the profane traduced the profound.
I suppose my memory of the experience would have been more laced with nostalgia if I had taken a camera and reduced the image to a carefully cropped and silent photograph. It would have left me with an accurate depiction of the incredible natural beauty of that place. But it would not have been an honest representation of the experience, which I now hold in far greater value. There was an important lesson to be learned: Reality often gets in the way of the idyllic.
Sometimes I find myself spending precious time advocating for a world that no longer exists – perhaps never existed – and complaining about the world that does exist. Do I want to live in a setting where the image is carefully defined and preserved? If I am honest, that’s just a way of cropping reality to match my own view of the world. Am I sometimes vulnerable to living a “Photoshop” existence? One in which my task is to crop out whatever doesn’t fit into my preferred picture?
My idyllic view excludes things like interpersonal tension and conflict. There is no wrongdoing on the part of bad actors. People are tolerant and understanding in this world, always acting in good faith. Yet, I am reminded of the words often repeated by a professor I had in graduate school who taught courses in law and education. We would examine a case seeking to understand the source of the conflict. Our puzzlement would increase as the case unfolded, and he would smile and quietly remind us, “Even reasonable people can disagree.”
I remember those in my life who have taught me how to embrace what is before me and find comfort in knowing that attempting to edit reality only leads to disappointment. Things will never be perfect enough. Satisfaction, therefore, does not emerge from perfection; it is found in reconciliation, resolution and restoration.
When I was a kid, the entry to our apartment was in the kitchen. Next to the door was a green chalkboard for messages. There was a time when the church we attended was facing some difficulties. I was not fully aware of the situation, but I knew enough to understand there were tensions and some degree of conflict. One day I was heading out the door, and I saw a message written on the chalkboard. It read, “Stop looking for the perfect church. You couldn’t attend anyway.” It was my mother’s way of reminding us that human organizations are inherently flawed because we are there. I learned that any attempt to crop my picture of the church simply lacked authenticity.
Human organizations of all kinds, despite divine or noble purpose, are flawed because we are in the picture. Sometimes we don’t like what we see, hear and smell. Our work as citizens, coworkers and members, however, is to see the authenticity of the actual and embrace that reality. By this we may be able to move beyond accusation and complaint, and create new opportunities. While our desire might be to say “MAKE IT GO AWAY!” our shared commitment is to respond to the real. Our task is to be constructive in the midst of conflict. To learn resilience in the wake of failure. To process change and find pathways to success. To promote common well-being across difference and diversity. To fulfill the responsibilities and privileges of membership. And, to do so, we need to see the whole picture.