Chapel Hill: Opinion

March 28, 2014

Lynden Harris: Question of the Day

When someone offers you a chance to go deep in conversation and connection, take it.

I have eaten at Café Gratitude.

When my daughter and I arrived at the LA café, the sign announced: I Am Open. Windows, doors, menus, all offered a dictionary-worth of affirmations. I am radiant. I am happy. I am awakening.

After we perused the I Am Spirited drinks list, the waiter collected our orders and asked if we would like to hear the Question of the Day.

A free question? Absolutely.

“What are you grateful for in your friends?”

When someone offers you a chance to go deep in conversation and connection, take it. For us, the moment provided a welcome respite from working lunches that stretched into dinner and meetings over cocktails that lasted long past the ice melt. Oh, and let’s not forget meetings during the horse races. In LA everything is a meeting, interspersed, in our case, with massive, inventory-reduction efforts with regard to my daughter’s belongings. What to keep? What to let go? I’m surprised no one showed up for a meeting over the boot-sorting event taking place in her closet. I was helping make change at the ground level, as she closed out her Oasis tech event and headed off to the Hackathon at South by Southwest.

In addition to these meetings with men making casual decisions about entertainment and technology involving many millions of dollars, I had other meetings those weeks, as well. I met with men living a monastic life under imposed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Deeply introspective, these men had spent decades reflecting on life, meaning, and purpose. They’d wrestled with what they termed “moral ambiguity” and redemption. Their desire to make a difference was potent. If you asked what they were grateful for in their friends, they went there far more quickly than our Café Gratitude dinner partners. Pretense is hard to maintain when you’re with the same people day in and night out for decades.

In that community, when a man is about to die, he weighs with real intention how to distribute his few possessions. One man gave away his belongings, which included an unopened deck of cards and a dictionary.

There was one caveat, though. “If I don’t die,” he told a friend, “you can keep the cards. But I want my dictionary back.”

Imagine your own parting gifts. What matters enough to bequeath with intention? And even more crucial, if you survived, what would you want back?

Remarkably, the man didn’t die. There was a stay of execution. He returned to his prison cell. He got his dictionary back.

The day after my daughter offered her overflowing bags to Goodwill, she said “I don’t even remember what was in them.” I like to think we can just as easily drop some of the less obvious things we hoard in our community consciousness. Like habituated negativity. Things that keep us separate and closed-minded, like uninspected privilege. Things that limit our capacity for a generous love. Given the chance for inventory reduction, I like to think we will hardly miss them.

My daughter was there when a car driven by a drunk 21-year-old plowed into the crowd at South by Southwest. After reflecting on the inconceivable tragedy, she said: “What I know is how very scarily precious every millisecond is, and how lucky I am. But I also know that I am somehow connected to both sides: the victims and the driver.

If that car had turned one block earlier, it could have been me on the pavement.

If I hadn’t been given the love, care, family, mother, father, brother, education, support, nutrition, medical care, nurturing, expectations, and again, love that I had earlier in life, it could have been me behind the wheel.

At our Oasis Tech Conference, Deepak Chopra said, “We are scientifically proving that consciousness is cloud-based. And … we share it.” If that's so, we better pay real attention to what “programs” we upload to that cloud. If our existence is communal – a giant, shared dropbox of ethos and experience we all draw from – then everyone is just a little responsible.

Imagine, if every bit of consciousness you exuded were shared collectively, if it affected you, me, your family, and some sad 21-year-old kid that was about to do something inconceivably inhumane, what would you do differently? What files would you upload to that collective storage space? Files that corrupt? Or programs that breed love? Bash scripts that destroy or open-source guides to expressing joy and compassion?

At every moment we are hacking consciousness for better or worse. Every thought is a prayer. Every action, too. Students often tell me they want to make the world a better place. I think the world is just fine. I think what we need to do is make ourselves a better people.

Goodwill. Gratitude. Gifts. The man who wasn’t executed had ordered Chinese for his last meal. When he didn’t die, he shared it with his friends. They still remember that.

What can we love, and maybe love better, without? And what must we keep and share so that it grows and strengthens all of us? Fill in the blank. I am ____________.

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices. You can contact her at

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