What My Birthday on Facebook Taught Me About Life and Leadership

Yesterday was my birthday, and I expected it to be a quiet day as I am fairly new to New York City, and I haven’t accumulated a circle of friends to fill up my special day quite yet. It turned out to be an incredibly busy and fulfilling day. Other than enjoying a Broadway show last night and some take out fried chicken, I spent most of the day relishing the birthday greetings and messages I received on Facebook from 5 am in New York until well past midnight last night, as Californians were still posting messages as I went to sleep. 

Perhaps it has taken this many years (I am not saying how many!) to appreciate it, but I was overcome yesterday with the beauty of the rich and diverse tapestry of friends and places that constitutes my life. I’ve lived in four major cities in the U.S, and in geographically diverse places from West Texas, to the Mid-Atlantic, to the rural South. I realize that not everyone has chosen to live in the same way, but my life just happened that way. Along the way, my life has accumulated friends that are as diverse in age, race, faith, sexual orientation and politics as any one person could hope to have, and all of them showed up on Facebook yesterday to wish me happy birthday. A conservative preacher in Texas. A Muslim friend in Los Angeles. A Republican operative in Nashville. A gay friend and his partner in San Diego. A father of three and youth minister in Dallas. They all sent notes of good thoughts or love yesterday.

As I watched them accumulate there on my Facebook wall, I was reminded of how richly blessed I am to enjoy this range of friends and family in my life. Before Facebook, perhaps we were less aware of it. With Facebook, I am sometimes struck by how one friend will post or engage in another friend of mine, and they could not be more unalike. But it is on birthdays that I’ve found Facebook to be so meaningful. No matter where friends or family live, they are able to share my special day with me, and I can do the same for them, in ways that never were possible before Facebook invaded our worlds.

Our politics has become too one-sided and too partisan. Culture wars continue to emerge at the fringes. Religious stereotypes and discrimination against minorities continue to abound. Much of this is happening because we are not talking to each other. We listen to only news sources with whom we already agree. We surround ourselves with people who are just like us in our churches, in our communities, or at our bars, and we can’t think or feel beyond those boxes.

If we are to move beyond this, we must befriend those unlike ourselves, and make intentional steps to hear opinions that differ from our own. I think most of us try to do this. Where we fail is that we begin cutting people out of our lives with whom we disagree, or we defriend them on Facebook because we don’t like their views, or we just stop engaging them because they make us uncomfortable. We all lose when we give in to this temptation.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this temptation when the Chick Fil A controversy was brewing. It was very difficult to watch the postings of friends – and more often, family – with whom I disagreed. I am confident that they also did not relish mine. But yesterday, those people were right back on my Facebook wall, telling me of their appreciation or love for me. And I was glad that I didn’t allow one issue to define me, or to define them. They are a valuable part of my life. And I promise you, their love and relationship matter to me a whole lot more than whether or not they eat at Chick Fil A.

There is a different way than the acrimonious and ugly national conversation that we are having in this political year, and as we navigate social and cultural changes that seem to happen now at lightning speed.  It is the way of love. As the Eastern religions teach us, and Jesus himself affirmed, it is important to develop the capacity to allow people to just be before we judge or label them. Learn to appreciate the complex humanity in all of us. Engage respectfully when we disagree, or give the gift of silence when that is more appropriate. Expect to disagree with others choices or expressions sometimes. Allow people to make mistakes, and don’t leave their side when they do. Seek to understand. Develop the capacity to enjoy a range of people and ideas in our lives. When we do this, we become more fulfilled human beings ourselves. We are happier. And we give the gift to others to allow themselves to be fully themselves in our presence.

Patrick Sweeney of Calipers, a management consulting firm, wrote this today on his blog about the need for leaders to cultivate diversity among those who advise them, as Lincoln once did with his “team of rivals.”

“Leaders need to make sure that they are not surrounding themselves with a bunch of people who agree with their every thought. Instead, they need to encourage debate, diversity of thoughts, and discord. And in between all those arguments, they need to hear the beauty of that discordant cacophony of diverse voices and opinions. Leaders need to hear all the wrong notes first before they make a symphony out of those disparate sounds.”

You can’t hear the wrong notes, or make a symphony, if you’re determined to only listen to the notes you like to hear.

Perhaps I enjoy it more than I should. Perhaps it is selfish. But birthdays on Facebook have become a somewhat sacred day for me. They are the one day a year that a host of friends and family enter my life and remind me of just how blessed I am to have known them all, and to be on this journey called life that only gets sweeter and richer with years because of that diversity. If I am to become fully who I am created to be, I need every one of them in my life. And yes, they need me too. That is how we can move forward. Together.

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