Back From My 40th Origin Trip: A Reminder That I Am Alive

I just returned from leading a group of 15 local high school students to visit cocoa farmers in a remote Tanzanian village on Lake Nyasa in the shadow of the Livingston Mountains. Since 2010 this journey has been part of our Chocolate University program inspiring local students that business can be a force for good in the world. More importantly we give students an opportunity to receive radical hospitality.

On days when I am open and aware I know what it feels like when time stops and I am locked in the present moment. At this point I’ve experienced it enough times to know generally when it’s coming, a kind of warning that I am about to be reminded that I am alive. Usually it’s when I am not expecting it. As strange as it might sound I do not think we choose these moments, they choose us. I’d like to focus on just one from last week.

Nearly every time I’ve traveled to this spot in East Africa I have been a special guest at a graduation ceremony for Empowered Girls and now Enlightened Boys. Last week was no exception. Clocking in at 3 to 4 hours these ceremonies tend to be long by American standards. For some of these young women and men this might be one of the the most memorable days of their lives. It’s a big deal. Side note: we fund and staff Empowered Girls in the region. It was founded and continues to be managed globally by angel on earth Kellen Msseemmaa. We founded, fund and staff Enlightened Boys. Both programs teach self esteem, life skills, sex education and non-violence empowering and enlightening these young Tanzanians for a hopeful future.

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Last Sunday afternoon we walked up the foothills about a mile from the village center to the secondary school to attend the graduation ceremony. Nearly 500 students welcomed us with song as our group of American students arrived. We sat at the head tables, adorned with white tablecloths, as the guests of honor. It was hot with zero breeze. There was a meticulously placed bottle of Fanta, Coca-Cola, and water on the table in front of each of us. Lawren spoke on behalf of our group encouraging the young graduates and thanking them for their hard work and dedication. The village students worked hard for weeks in advance of our visit preparing skits and songs to mark the honor of this celebration.

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A group of about 30 young women from Matema Secondary moved to the front of this open air oversized classroom to sing a tribal welcome song in their native Nyakyusa dialect. It was a hauntingly beautiful call and response. I had literally no idea what they were saying but I did not need to know. That’s when it happened. Rapture. Time stopped. I did not need to speak Nyakyusa to know that God was speaking. Overwhelmed. What did He say? I have no idea. He was not speaking “to” me. I was an observer, a listener. I videoed part of the song and have played it at least 100 times since that day. Listening to the song over and over brings me right back to that place. I cannot even talk about it without becoming emotional. For a few days I struggled with why? I’ve been to many graduation ceremonies where songs and skits were performed. Why this celebration? Why this song? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I am aware of my limitations as a writer. Words are not available to me to describe what happened. In fact, my words are unimportant and I take comfort in that.

 

I quote Joseph Campbell in my book and he’s an expert on this topic so I’ll bring him into this conversation. He recounted to Bill Moyers in the now famous PBS interview series:

“My friend Heinrich Zimmer of years ago used to say, ‘The best things can’t be told,’ because they transcend thought. ‘The second best are misunderstood,’ because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about, and one gets stuck in the thoughts. ‘The third best are what we talk about.”

Here I am “talking about” this present moment of transcendence that probably only lasted a matter of seconds in reality. You see where my feeble attempt ranks in the order of understanding according to Campbell and I agree. Transcendent experiences remind us of our our true selves, who we are, that we are alive. The practice is not about finding the next transcendent experience. That would be tempting but unsustainable. Instead, it’s about pulling the thread of that experience forward into the stitches of our daily lives. My question now revolves around ways I can integrate that moment into my day.

I can look to Christ’s mother as the role model of integration. After the shepherds came to see her baby in the manger proclaiming the angel’s message “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” That’s enough for me. I treasure that moment of song and will ponder it in my heart for many days to come.

Digging Deeper: Reverse scale makes moments like this possible. I have a sense of what the practice of reverse scale feels like. It’s a practice we can use to discover and stay tethered to our true selves in life and business. For me it means that I led this trip with the students when I could have delegated it to someone else. Not scale but reverse scale which can also be called human scale. Read more about priming the pump of reverse scale in your life in Chapter 5 of my book.

 

Reverse Scale: It’s A Practice Not A Place

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We leave in three days for rural Tanzania with 14 local high school students in tow. They’re an elite group of students who competed to be part of our Chocolate University high school program. We launched the project in 2009 and have been taking students to Tanzania ever since. Hold that thought.

We write about reverse scale extensively in the book. What is it? It’s a practice of recognizing the value of not scaling. One of our beliefs, coined by Lawren, is that our vocation is not necessarily getting bigger but getting better at staying small. We’re conditioned by our business culture to believe that unless the idea is big and capable of rapid scale then it has little value. Can we take a step back and reconsider this dogma? Could we assess value even if our idea helps only one person or if it only transforms us? True sustainability lies within the answers to these questions. If more of us answered the call to action on the supposedly “small” ideas then imagine the kind of social problems the world could address.

We tend to think “more” and “bigger” will always be better, that somehow they will allow us to finally breathe easier when we arrive. The problem is that it’s often an illusion because we never really arrive at the place that’s just out of reach. Scale demands that every single person in the chain focus on what’s next and on finding someone to do the thing that’s now ‘below’ them in order to move themselves up. Anything less than that and you will lose the race for scale, because someone else is more focused than you.

Reverse scale could also be called human scale. It is in the smallness of one on one relationships that we find meaning because we’re not insulated from the pain and sorrows of these connections. We tend to lose this when we’re so focused on scale and growth.

Could we have scaled Chocolate University nationwide or worldwide by now? Probably. Perhaps I’d be managing (not leading) multiple trips a year with students from around the world to more than one destination. It would be possible to do that right alongside accelerated growth of my chocolate company. That’s scale!  Reverse scale, on the other hand, says, “This is it.” Today, right here, right now. This student, this cocoa farmer, this meal, this village. That’s all I really possess. There’s a lot of power in that. I know I’d lose these important human connections if I were managing, delegating, and looking at spreadsheets instead of practicing this discipline of reverse scale. It is this practice that allows me, at times, to experience my True Self as Thomas Merton calls it.

Back to the high school students I’ll be traveling with on Monday. When we arrive in remote rural Tanzania our students will be embraced by the village farmers as “members of the family” because we’ve been their partners for nearly a decade. We have a packed schedule of “doing” but have left ample time for “being.” In the coming days I will remain a student too as we’re welcomed by farmers who practice radical hospitality.

Happy Birthday Morrie! (the one from Tuesday’s With Morrie)

Today would have been Morrie Schwartz’s 99th Birthday. If you’ve read my book you know that Morrie and his book had a powerful influence in my life. Instead of pulling one of my favorite quotes from his book (and there are many) I decided to tell a story in honor of Morrie and one that I think he’d like. He was one of my teachers, albeit through his book, and so my story is about students.

Last Saturday we had our orientation meeting for our brand new Askinosie Chocolate University Class of 2018. They are super smart, competitive, accomplished local juniors and seniors in high school. About half of our students are on full scholarship which means we raise the money for them to participate. The other half can pay on their own because their parents have the money. These students will meet with us periodically over the coming Spring. Then they’ll spend a week together this July in the Drury University dorms near our factory getting to know each other, studying our business model, learning about cocoa beans and chocolate, a little Tanzanian culture, language and history. They will go home and pack and meet us at the airport and we’ll travel to Tanzania to meet our farmer partners in an adventure of a lifetime. I have been doing this since we started the program in 2009. It fits within our local elementary, middle and high school projects.

Back to the orientation meeting with our somewhat nervous, bright-eyed students and their parents. We covered the practical need to know things like passports, visas, food, malaria, air travel, forms and medical histories. Then it was my turn to explain why we are going on this trip to begin with: business. The business of buying cocoa beans and profit sharing with farmers. I explained the things they might see, smell, taste, and experience. I showed a few pictures of beautiful lake Nyasa and the village, the farmers, the children.

I explained that they will see striking images of joy and sorrow side by side. I looked at each of our students and said “I am sure that your hearts will break, some of you a little and some of you a lot. If not then we have not done our job. It’s my hope that your heart will break not because of the poverty that you see in the people of Africa but because of the poverty you see in yourself.” I challenged our students to consider that (almost) anyone can travel to Africa, observe terrible things and feel sad. Some of it IS sad but not all it and some is both joyful and sad at the same time. But not all of us can absorb the experience, feel the sadness, feel the joy and recognize the depths of our own malnourishment.  

Our students more often than not come into this experience earnestly wanting to “help the people of Africa” until the blindfolds are removed and they see that it’s not their job. Their job is to let their hearts break because as Leonard Cohen would say “that’s how the light gets in.”

Here’s the lesson for me: I dont need to travel halfway around the world to see this. I can let the light in right here, right now. 

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