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A Heat-Wave of Inspiration

It felt like the kind of heat that curls paint from the walls. It was the heat wave of 2010 and there I was among 80 leaders in the Adirondack Mountains. While the mountains sound like a nice cool summer getaway, the record temperatures along the Eastern seaboard were only a few degrees higher than our gathering on the shores of New York’s Lake George. I’ve read of sociological studies indicating that strangers enduring these kinds of temperatures tend to get edgy and irritable. Not us: our group was pursuing inspiration — and the experience was like a cool breeze.

This event, The Leadership Forum at Silver Bay annually brings leaders together to discuss the most pressing human issues. We’re all there to reinforce our shared belief that leadership matters if we are to forge a healthier planet. I led a workshop on executive vitality and resilience — but I walked away with something much larger. The event renewed my sense that there are leaders everywhere inspired to make a positive impact through their organizations, their communities, and their lives.

That got me to thinking about inspiration itself. How fertile is our everyday life and work for creating the sort of inspiration and motivation I found at Silver Bay? Not very, suggests NeuroAnthropology.net — a website focused on a “greater understanding of the encultured brain and body.” They say that we’re bombarded today with pessimism rather than optimism, no matter what form of media (T.V., radio, newspapers, social media) or what topic (celebrities, politics, war, the economy).

Such negative messages are known to reinforce poor eating habits, unhealthy body images in women, and violence in our children. And these messages are baking a cynical cultural bias into how we see the world and experience our lives. When we’re stewing in this unhappy cauldron, it’s easy to miss inspiration — unless you actively seek it.

I, for one, believe inspiration surrounds us. Finding it is less about what’s happening outside us; more about what we let in. At the Leadership Forum, it came for me in the form of Mark Johnson, executive director of the Fellowship for Reconciliation. His interfaith organization is devoted to replacing war, violence, economic injustice, and racism with justice, peace, and freedom. As our assemblage of leaders sweated through the heat wave, guzzling water and ineffectively fanning ourselves with our notepads, Mark asked us: “How can we build a caring society and foster hope for future generations in a world that often seems hopeless?”

It only now occurs to me that in many situations we curse such sticky heat, the nuisance of all that sweat dripping off us. But in other situations, say a nice summer hike or an exhilarating bike ride, we revel in our body’s same reaction. One person’s frustration is another’s opportunity and adventure. With Mark’s words, I found the nuisance of the heat physically shifting: my mind and body became itchy to help discover answers to the questions he posed.

In a similar shift, my travel buddy and I discovered our room at the Forum wasn’t air conditioned. That made it an unbearable 15 degrees hotter than the outside’s stifling temperatures. We rigged a homemade swamp cooler in the room’s window, we wore damp towels around our necks to keep ourselves sane, and our initial gripes gave way to laughter and moments of inspired creativity.

Even in the people, places, and times you’d least expect it, inspiration is waiting to be found. The day after my Adirondack adventure, a 5:00 AM phone call woke me up. After another heart attack, my father was at a distant hospital undergoing cardiac surgery. I spent time with him as he recovered. Though he was shaken by the ordeal, he told me what he’s said ever since I was a kid: “PMA, Renee. PMA.” To us, that means “positive mental attitude.” It’s Dad’s fuel for living.

When we can find laughter and motivation in a heat wave, or positivity in the face of a life-threatening condition, then we’re on the right path. That’s the way to find inspiration even if the media seems to miss it.

Photo by Patrick Hoesly