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Loose Threads

Loose Threads

It’s been a bit more than a year and a half since I have written an essay for “Mark: My Words.” It feels good to be writing again. So why the hiatus? I’m not entirely sure. I suppose that after several years of writing these essays I needed a break. I also felt some changing thought patterns and emotions that began to affect my writing in ways that concerned me. There just seemed to be too much of an edge.

I have been asked from time to time why I haven’t been writing as much. The easy answer is that I have just been far too busy. There is truth in that, but it is not the full story. My real challenge has been that I have not had a quiet mind. That’s the one thing I need to write in a way I find satisfying.

I think I meet the technical definition of being an introvert as I find renewal in my own thoughts. I love spending time wandering around my mind. It’s not that I like everything I find there, but the journey through thought is both mysteriously calming and intensely revealing. Some say thinking is a lost art. A lot of noise and distraction surrounds us with ever greater intensity, so perhaps the tyranny of the urgent crowds out the important. In my case, I just couldn’t hear me anymore. Yet, if everything belongs and has a purpose in our complex lives, so do periods when we find ourselves lost in the maelstrom of life. Lostness has something to teach us as well.

So, I stopped writing for a while. It became a chore, an assignment. I usually find writing relaxing, but it became a source of stress. Reflective writing is especially too tender and fragile to be subjected to brute force.

The way back for me has been reading and thinking and finding ways to just be quiet. I’ve been listening to a lot of music and watching more classic-style films with rich character and plot development. Most of all, I’ve backed away from social media. It has some value personally and professionally, but it can be so consuming and in a creepy way, pacifying and mind numbing. The rebalancing has helped me to quiet my mind and my heart in the midst of the turmoil that surrounds us.

Returning to writing involves picking up a few loose threads and weaving in new ones. The world has changed since my last essay in May 2016 and so has my perspective on my life and my work. So here are a few loose threads I am now blending with new material.

First, I have generally looked at my life and my work through long arcs of time. The work of leadership, particularly a college presidency, is an inheritance and those of us playing these roles eventually realize that we work for our successors. I am fond of reminding our community that we work for the benefit of those who are not here yet and even those who are not born yet. I find that perspective reassuring. Any action I take or decision I make cannot be seen in isolation. There are always antecedents that enable or inhibit a next step in the moment, and the consequences of any step taken, intended or unintended, will become the inheritance of future leaders. Owning the past and the future represents the true weight of leadership.

Second, I am becoming more aware of the importance of priorities. To borrow a line from the dystopian movie trilogy “The Matrix,” more than ever I feel the need to “protect that which matters most.” Doing so requires focus and discipline. This is really hard. Yet, the clarity that comes through difficult choices is also reassuring. As we explore the possible and the probable in search of a priority we inherently release some things in order to embrace others. Prioritization is not denigration, however. We have all had to let go of things we continue to care deeply about. That’s what makes it so tough to do. In my life and in my work, the task of prioritization is demanding, yet liberating.

Third and finally, I am exploring my values at a deeper level. I believe the ideals I truly value should be enduring. Things like integrity, compassion and fairness are among them. What I have struggled with is the sense that my idea of integrity may not match the ideas of others. The same is true for compassion and fairness. The definitions of words like these seem to be more and more contingent these days. That troubles me. While I have always recognized differing cultural and linguistic contexts for the expression of values, it feels like our cultural consensus around values is eroding. I find this concerning. I need to spend more time thinking about this as I weave the old threads of my lasting memories with the newer threads of my current experience. I still think values are enduring, but I need to better understand what they mean to me and how I can best express them.

It’s easy to cut and discard loose threads, but for those of us who enjoy the life of the mind, every thread belongs. The task is to find a way to weave it in and make it a part of the tapestry of our lives.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.

 

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