My Mom the Deviant – Leads in This Brutal Recession

A cousin of mine with five kids under seven has been without a job since May.  My mom sprang into action last night, making calls, bundling checks from each of her seven kids.

I think the scholars I admire at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan would call Mom a great example of “positive deviance!”

This recession sucks.  There’s enough sadness, anger, and fear to point about a million fingers.  But it also affords a lot of chances for humanity to emerge, too, and for positive deviance. Is there a wise tradition that denies this?

  • Zen says all of life is suffering.  And ego makes it so, or at least prolongs it.  Suffering can lead us to true presence for the first time.
  • Jesus says, “If a man would gain his life, he must lose it,” and “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
  • A Mormon scholar writes:  “It may well be that only those who undergo suffering can fully empathize with the suffering soul. Only those who go down into the depths of humility with a broken heart and a contrite spirit can fully understand the Master and the path he trod. Therefore, in times of suffering perhaps it is faith we need, rather than rational understanding. Perhaps our prayers should be for strength to bear up under the burden rather than to have the burden removed. (See Mosiah 24:13–15.) Perhaps the road we may have to tread through suffering leads ultimately to important discoveries of the soul.”*
  • A Muslim Fatwa speaks to suffering, offering multiple explanations, including that “Allah allows some people to suffer in order to test their patience and steadfastness.”  This explanation also offers a point other religions sometimes miss.  “Allah sometimes allows some people to suffer to test others, how they react to them. When you see a person who is sick, poor and needy, then you are tested by Allah. Allah is there with that suffering person to test your charity and your faith.”  (emphasis added)
  • Job offers an amazing example of faith in challenge (as well as plenty of examples of how to be a rotten friend)

Kouzes and Posner say it in leadership jargon:  “only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.”  I’ve been thinking that only challenge produces the opportunity for authenticity.  If you don’t bump against something big, don’t get your edges shaved off, don’t test yourself, how will you know who you are, what you’re really made of?  And if you’re not challenged by others’ suffering, who are you really?

We’re not just solitary soldiers.  Part of what we’re made of is the family and community that surrounds and defines us.  So, amidst the anger, impatience, and fear, I lift up my cousin in struggle and my Mom’s positive deviance.  Mom shows a wonderful example of how challenge offers an opportunity for compassion and action…

To lead with your best self

*Arthur Bassett, “What the Scriptures Saying about Suffering?” found at
on November 15, 2009.

** Mufti Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, Why Does Allah Allow Suffering and Evil in the World? Found at: accessed on November 15, 2009.

  • Good for your mom and others who are helping in the ways that they are able. Our service this weekend was about the same subject – about the closed doors and open doors and how a better opportunity oftens comes as one door closes and another opens. Now is the season to recognize our talents and multiply them to help others, not bury them.

  • Dan

    While it is true that adversity forces us to learn, to adapt, to reach deep down and find resources where we did not know they existed, and while you quote a broad array of amazing people to back up your point, there is no requirement that it get this bad (to learn), that it stays this bad so long (to learn), and that we cannot learn some things from others rather than by experiencing difficulties ourselves.

    I’m reminded of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof singing “If I was a Rich Man” when he thanks god for making him poor because he has learned so much that he would never have known had he been rich, but then adds that it wouldn’t be so terrible to be rich either.

    Pain is not a requirement to learn. It is only an accelerator.


    • Don,
      Sure, there are other ways to learn. But sometimes it’s existential or tragic. We fight it off for good reasons. Yet it persists. And in this place of great dislocation a different kind of learning takes place. It’s qualitative. I don’t believe we should wish for it, or linger in it longer than we must, but I do believe it is unique and uniquely powerful.

  • Dan,

    BRAVO for your Mom who truly gets it!

    We are all on the planet together and if we don’t help each other out then who will?

    My son and his girlfriend were arguing over who bought the laundry soap last. Her retaliation was to deny him dinner (Kids!)

    I made them both read Matthew~25:35-36

    I was hungry…and you fed Me.

    I was thirsty…and you gave Me drink.

    I was a stranger…and you took Me in.

    I was naked…and you clothed Me.

    I was sick…and you visited Me.

    I was in prison…and you came to Me.

    We ALL need to be “The Change We Want To See In the World.”

    ~The TIP Lady

  • Dan
    As you encourage us as to how we act in or react to suffering, I thought of the story of the good samaritan. There have been psychological studies on being a good samaritan. The results are astounding and point to a way to live life if we believe that this is the right response to suffering. Look it up. Perhaps you may find interesting.


  • Finally an article I can identify with….some good old down to earth acknowledgement and reflection on what is happening right now and potential suggestions. Thanks.

  • Good for your Mom!

    Hope and inspiraton in tough times matters.

    We need to keep reminding ourselves that every one of us has a definite life purpose that is meant to be shared. Following our own personal path, without giving up, will get us through these challenging times.

  • These tough times can be a great motivator. It is important to see how we got into this mess. Michigan is unique, unfortunately, in that we have been in a recession for 8 years. There has to be lessons to learn in this! How did we incur an 8 year recession? What can we do differently to get out of it? If we don’t change we will just keep waxing on about living bravely in these tough times.

    I am all for a positive attitude but if you don’t have the courage to look at what brought Michigan to this awful situation we will be doomed to an ever shrinking economy.

    The fact that we are not a “right to work” state has hurt us massively in the loss of manufacturing jobs moving to the SW USA. Nobody wants to talk about it and they will continue to wonder why oh why are we losing jobs. For political reasons, the UAW is the holy grail of getting elected in this state. That is unfortunate because you have politicians who will strike a deal with the UAW to further thier own ambitions while knowing full well that they are consigning Michigan to more and more job losses.

    • Terry,

      Besides glossing over the potential spiritual power of the experience for Michigan and so many people in it, I think your single sense of cause, and single prescription for change has merit, but ignores so much. The fact is you could have written this when I was a UAW member (in the late 70s) and it would have been largely true.

      But despite the recent skeptical votes by UAW workers at Ford notwithstanding, the UAW has made repeated concessions to keep the Big 3 afloat – from Veba’s to two-tier wage structures to radical changes in classifications. You also overlook the fact that the Big 3 have all made commitments to grow here in Michigan. There’s work for everyone, and Michigan has to question its identity – even in the ways you point out. But why pick that and not health care costs or trade policy, or management/quality problems of the past, or consumers slowly looking to domestics? The entire blame and prescription turns on “right to work?” Really?

      It mystifies my why some Republican, generally affluent suburban folks, who have never themselves been a part of the working class are so quick to point fingers. Not sure that describes you, but I have my suspicions. To me one of our major learnings through this crisis ought to be that we need to find a little more win-win. Labor can’t think the world is the same as it was 50 years ago. And neither can Republicans (who for example resist EVERY tax, no matter how sensible and no matter the cost, and no matter the fact that we’re now $9 billion below the Headlee limit). Every time you have ever written in this space it’s been the exact same ideological views. Am I wrong? Is there any shading in your vision?

      Is the Michigan competitiveness issue really as single-sided as you make it out?


      • Dan

        No it is not the only issue but this issue never gets talked about by those in power. Right to Work truly is the elephant in the room. Yes the UAW made some concessions but it is my suspicion that as soon as the autos make a profit they will demand that they are made whole even if that means the autos break even leaving very little for future technolgies to solidify their future. The UAW made concessions when it became apparent that they may not have anything if they don’t concede.

        So much has been blamed on jobs going overseas when 20 or so manufacturing plants opened up in the SW. Unfortunately for MI this was a lost opportunity and now there is a solid manufacturing base in the SW bc they would not come near this state even though we have a huge amount of talent here.

        It is incredible to me that the govenor has not even brought the subject up for debate. It is not like the workers at those plants are being treated poorly. From what I understand they have great wages and benefits. The only differnce is that the companies can operate without the constant threat of the union bosses shutting them down every couple of years. Let the market work in MI like it is working in the south.

        By the way, I think it is strange that you are “suspicious” that I might be a wealthy republican. Like it is bad to be wealthy or Republican. To put your suspicions to rest, I am not. My brothers and I own our own business and make less than most UAW workers with less healthcare. I had to put half of my retirment into my business to keep it going and my house is up as collateral so we can keep our loan with the bank. I took a 40% pay cut 5 years ago and I don’t see any of that money coming back anytime soon. I wish I could threaten to shut down the auto industry to get more money for myself but that is only reserved for those UAW workers that are making more than me.

        • Terry,

          Kudos to you for being a risk-taking entrepreneur who feels it in the ups as well as the downs. I hope your sacrifice pays off in the recovery we’re all hoping for. One of the untold stories in the country is how hard business owners work and how they go to sleep with people’s jobs and people’s families on their minds. I am sure there are fortunate people who depend on you and your brothers to keep food on their tables. As a Michiganian who benefits from work like yours, I say thanks.

          We could go round and round on this. You recognize a reality that is undeniable: we didn’t compete well for auto jobs in the ’90s (Delta and VW are the only plants I can think of in this decade). Right to Work is one solution to the historical problem we live in the center of. But there’s more to the history for starters than evil unions.

          We never would have had unions in the first place had management been bright and compassionate and fair. We still have management that takes ludicrous multiples of average income for themselves. And we have poor management practices that perpetuate mistrust. The better management gets – engaging not caving in – the better labor will be.

          In this country laborers have a right to associate, and that is a good check. We fight some bad history in this state, and some bad blood, but I’m not for taking away workers’ rights to organize. There are other ways to get to a better scenario. Hopefully UAW leadership will be sensible (Gettlefinger, as you probably saw, tried to pass the latest round of Ford concessions), and management will be sensible and inclusive, as they tackle ongoing competitiveness issues. There is also a new generation of workers who won’t have the same sense of entitlement (they’ll also have much more education and have competed more heartily for spots), and that will serve as a check.

          You put total (?) trust in the market. The market has its strengths. And as we’ve seen with the banking crisis it has its glaring weaknesses as well. The more labor and management work together the better we’ll all do.

          And on we go!


  • Terry’s comment speaks to me in the sense that we do need to be aware of cause and consequences. My family bailed out a relative who lived way beyond her means, buying a house she couldn’t afford. It felt like supporting her excess. Common sense says to save for the tough times in the good times. People who did that are now being faced with the question of how to support those who didn’t without enabling them. I agree that suffering is a great humbler, a teacher and a path to deepen the soul. Sometimes we need it to develop discernment. I don’t want to turn a hard heart toward anyone… and I also don’t want to reinforce immature and addictive attitudes. I’m sure most of us have had the experience of helping someone who basically squandered our resources. It takes the wisdom of heart and discernment to decide how to respond to the needs of others.

    Sounds like you have a great mom.

  • I couldn’t agree more. I especially agree with the previous writer. Me too. Just gave $$ for something I think is not an essential. I’m waiting. They’re spending. However, that said, I do believe what your mother represents. We’re all needy at various points in our lives. It may be a spiritual need, financial need, emotional need. And by some miracle, for me anyway, there is always someone or something that suddenly appears and helps me. They never ask, then never want in return, they’re just there. That’s what I want to be. That’s what you do for me and many others. Keep it up. We need your voice and Jenifer’s courage. You are a dynamic team and I say, Thank you, God. Just keep on keepin on. Joan

  • Dan — you and your Mom started me thinking…

    Bertrand Russell said, “In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying.” Having the courage to stand up and take action against this grand annoyance is the hallmark of those who have a deep sense of self, and who treasure authenticity and integrity.

    Discovery of self is a mantra — one of those “tools of power” so often at the center of self-improvement schemes. Yet, I believe we spend a large part of our lives hiding from ourselves, because we cannot or will not face the truth of the evils which live in the shadows around us. It is a perfect storm of suffering which threatens to inundate us all, a tsunami crashing upon us from the ocean of tears we, ourselves, created. Perhaps, in standing against that storm, we can discover who we are and what we are. Perhaps, by standing on the shoals near the dark shore, we can face down the terrible storm and find the beauty of the world.

    Dr. Seuss saw the truth of the matter: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

    Against the Gale

    The beauty of the world is testament,
    That suffering cannot be at the core.
    Yet although evil is not heaven-sent,
    Mankind hides in its shadows all the more:
    Seeking to deny the truth in caring,
    And hiding from compassion in their souls,
    Focusing on self, and never daring
    To face the tear-filled ocean from its shoals;
    These victims of impatience and ennui,
    Will seek out those who stand and face the storm —
    Who understand the challenges they see,
    And seek to deviate far from the norm!
    Although their feet may rest on shifting sand,
    Against the gale they have courage to stand.

    Mick McKellar
    November 2009

  • This column really resonated with me. I have experienced the depths which incapacited me. I gave in to a Higher Power, asking for outside strength to hold me up. To my amazement I was energized and able, also willing, to push on and rise to what was required of me to survive and thrive.
    Often in complete humility and in a state of surrender, we find our true selves and strength we didn’t know we had. That self-confidence lives with me today and continues to help me. I am grateful for all the life experiences, ups and downs, that teach me so much.
    Kudos to you and to Jennifer for all you do and share. You have much support and appreciation.

    • Meryl,

      Thanks for the kind words about my mom.

      She’s wise.

      You offer the yin to my yang, but I suggest this:

      I suspect my mom’s like I am (or I am like she): she regrets more the times she wasn’t charitable, even if she might have been used in those circumstances; than the times when she didn’t give, when she might have helped someone.

      There are a lot of hurting people out there, who like me overspent and cheated the rainy day fund, but have largely led good and charitable lives themselves, and have been wracked hard by economic winds. To me, it’s a time for compassion to have precedence over cold hard justice.


      • I appreciate your yin/yang observation, although in this case it might be me being the yang to your yin. I naturally gravitate to the other polarity from the one expressed and then to the integration of polarities. I struggle to be able to communicate my observations without negating.

        I know that in my blog, people often point out what I don’t state. It takes a book to cover all the bases… and there are still important pieces that don’t make it into the mix.

        If I was part of your cousin’s network I probably would have delighted in the opportunity to help – but I might have helped by creating a project that is useful to my business and that would expand his skill set. That’s what I did when my son was adrift – I got services, he got money and skills, and now he’s happily employed in a career path his work for me prepared him for.

        My history is one of overgiving, so I actually regret helping more than not. I relate deeply to the myth of Psyche and how she had to say no to people in great need to accomplish her noble mission. For me, saying yes was and is usually easier than saying no. And it’s simpler to write a check than it is to ask… how can I really serve here?

        Thanks for listening!

        • Meryl,

          You nicely enrich the dialogue!

          I appreciate both the principles you’re articulating, and the strong personal point of view – the self awareness you express. My hope is always that Reading for Leading expresses life-long principles, yet each of us has to integrate our beliefs into our lived experience. I say yes too often, as well. So your writing touched me.

          And I say no. Wisdom, I suppose is being honest with myself in the midst of each situation.

          Thanks again for enriching the discussion!


  • We see so much suffering with new clients at Michigan Works! The same story every day: “I lost my job… my car… my house… my spouse… the kids… can’t find a job…” Too often, it seems, the suffering comes from an expectation that things can be as they were, where someone with a criminal history and without a GED can somehow just walk into a place and get a $20/hour job starting Monday… or an expectation that they can keep on smoking at $5 a pack and someone else will pay for the diapers… How much suffering is caused by expecting that unemployment benefits can be extended forever? Or that China will continue to keep the U.S. afloat by buying treasury bonds? It seems like people are walking towards a cliff with their eyes squeezed shut even though someone tells them that they’re walking towards a cliff! Sad! And those of us who are trying to help them, out of all compassion, are called negative, pessimistic, unkind, dream-killers…! Sad, but the truth can set us free if only we’ll hear it and respond. We need to give up on unrealistic expectations and put our nose to the grindstone and stop blaming others for our predicament… or so I believe.

    • Norma,

      Thanks for sharing. What a tough and important job you have – to see the suffering and try to respond authentically. The human capacity for denial is too big for our own good sometimes. It’s hard to start over and to quit pretending. Sometimes we just don’t rise to the task.

      I’m lifting a prayer for you and your clients. I hope you can be effective with your compassion and some element of tough love. You are right that this world is demanding some big time changes from us – from the individual to the national and even global levels.

      Well said.


      • Thank you for your prayers. Feel free to extend that to my colleagues and their clients, too!

        One advantage of hitting absolute bottom is that there’s no place to go but up (as long as people aren’t shoveling themselves into a deeper bottom with denial, or alcohol, or drugs).

        Some of our clients pick up the ball we lay down and run with it, achieving their GED, going on to get a NWLB grant, career education, maybe NCRC certification, and a job. They deserve a lot of credit. They leave the past behind and move forward with their lives.

        Yes, tough love is required at times. Sitting on the pity pot waiting for a job to drop in their lap isn’t going to rescue anyone these days. They can wish, but that’s not reality… as we point out, whether they want to hear it or not. If they do what they can do instead of fretting over what they have no control over, things can get better. I think that’s what Depression-era people found. Blaming doesn’t help.

  • I am sure your mother is not old enough to remember the last depression, but my parents are. She is simply doing what most reasonable folks did then, caring for eachother to ensure survival. Or, as my Daddy would say. Do unto others, for you never know when you might be needing to be done for.

    One of my dear friends, in her nineties, ashed me when Goldman Sachs failed and I told her of the coming crisis “what will we do” my answer was simple…we will help eachother as we always have.

    Remember, neighbors don’t just live next door, but if next door is hurting, lost their job, or about to lose their home, don’t turn a blind eye either.

    Your mom is a prize.

    • Mom WAS born into the depression – 1930. Many stories from her and dad of exactly the kind of caring you describe. Thanks for your straightforward expression!

  • Dan.

    I’m not surprised your mom took the initiative to rally financial support for you cousin. Her deed is a throwback to an era when this country didn’t promote the you are on your own mentatlity. What an example of inspirationl leadership. Your mom became aware of a crisis and energized a cadre of family members to help loved ones in need.This action by your mom though simple on its face begs the question “How many of us Lead with our best self by orginating an endeavor like your mom”? I will be the first to admit I cannot recall if I ever undertook a project so uniquely positive

    • Amy/Graham’s Mom,
      I’ll tell you what, when God decided that my soul was going to be under my mom’s care, I hit the jackpot, indeed.
      Gotta love that mom!

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