Opportunities for Growth in Leaving a Culture and Religion

Prologue (REVISED) to my sacred memoir at breakframe.wordpress.com

“Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith you are welcome here”

I choke up as I hear these words welcoming us to this community. I scan the congregation for the ‘whoevers’. I see Muslims, Jews, people of some or no faith, each a fellow pilgrim on a faith journey. I also notice that I am in a place welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks. This is a refuge for all the rejection where other religious groups told them, “We hate the sin but love the sinner”. 

I was once in a leadership position in a radically different church *tribe. Evangelical Christianity is the polar opposite of my new inclusive community of faith. I was also reared in the mother of all racist societies in South Africa. The latter shaped my sense of white male entitlement, othering of persons of color, and king of the castle attitude in the caste system. 

What follows is my story about leaving my religion and country and the growth opportunities that ensued.

Folks leave religious and cultural backgrounds all the time. Maybe they attend college where all sorts of doors open where they see different perspectives on life. Or they drown in the cross currents of conformity in their tribe. Or intellectually that cannot stomach that their group views itself as the “only” way. Whatever the reason for the exodus change is always difficult. None of us have access to a reliable crystal ball. Mine is in the repair shop and they don’t seem to be able to fix it. We stumble our way across an ill defined border that seems to end in nowhere land. 

My migration from church and country nearly four decades ago was a gut-wrenching and life-enhancing move. But some inner light prompted me to take a leap of faith. At least that is my explanation for the change. Some in my former tribe would label me as apostate. It also helped that I had a full scholarship to graduate studies in psychology in California.

Maybe you have struggled to leave your cultural or religious past. Your background may be entirely different from mine. However, embracing the new took you on an emotional rollercoaster. But this necessary loss will eventually be transformed into an exhilarating adventure. In that strange and foreign place your life is reordered as you discover who you really are and what you want for your life. 

*I use the word tribe to describe my former brand of Evangelical Christianity in South AfricaBut the term also applies to a portion of the Evangelical church in the USA where I was involved for a decadeEvangelicals are not a monolithic entity. There is diversity of thought and a spectrum of beliefs in that religious camp. There is a growing group of “new” evangelicals that has moved beyond xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and anti-science. Thought leaders in this group include Jim Wallis from the Soujourner movement and the late Virginia Mollenkott. There are many good people in this group. They are not to be dismissed as deplorable.

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Experiencing the True Self

Have you discovered who your “I” really is?

Are you aware that your original self has always been there?

For a decade in my childhood I had the same bicycle.

But how it changed over the years. It became increasingly more battered. Bike polo, ramp jumping, stream crossing, beast of burden (3 kids on one bike), races on rickety roads, parts removed and added, and then after ten years, it’s ultimate demise, run over by my mother (I left the bike in the driveway).

With all the changes it was, in one way or another, still the same bike and a metaphor for life. Our true self is always present.

We have to distinguish our original face from our changing feelings, our self-image (often defined by external factors like performance, status, looks), our failures, or even our shadow side. Sometimes this true self is like an underground river invisible to the eye. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of it in acts of kindness, selflessness, humility, service, solidarity with all, and the realization that “I am who I am” is quite sufficient. In those moments of recognition intuitively we say “That’s it!”

Then we have discovered what spiritual teacher Adyashanti calls “the reality of eternal life ever present in the core of our being”.


Where have you had a glimpse of your true self?

What practices have empowered you in your inner journey?

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When It Is Time To Leave A Bad Situation

There are times when you just have to exit an untenable situation. That may be true in everything from a relationship to a work context.

I know. We have to hang in there because the job market is volatile. Resilience is a good thing to learn. Difficult times don’t last forever. Bad bosses come and go. And biting the bullet can be the way of wisdom. Every situation has a dark side that we either have to protest or learn adaptation skills. But the other option is to leave. In that case,

First, follow your own wisdom

Intuitively, you know that now is the time to move on. Those close to you have hinted that you need to wake up and smell the coffee. Always ask yourself “What does my inner wise person say about this?” Don’t be surprised by the answers you get. One friend of mine asked that question about a pending change and her inner voice told her “Love yourself”.

Second, any change is painful

Leaving is often difficult. But there is no escaping the pain. You have to go through rather than around it. The fact is that you have given heart and soul to this situation and in exiting you feel that you leave a piece of yourself behind.

Whether you left on your own or you were evicted (fired? divorced?) you experienced the equivalent of the British idiom “Sending a person to Coventry”. The phrase means that you were deliberately ostracized or ignored. Being on the “outs” can be a very painful and lonely experience. We all need affirmation and validation. The pity is that this acceptance is often contingent on us being in lock step with a set of beliefs that run counter to our own. 

Third, leverage your solid relationships.

Leaving is easier if one has a robust social support system. Reaching out to people who have stuck with you through thick and thin, contacting former bosses and colleagues, joining a support group, or finding a coach to walk with you through the days of uncertainty are keys factors to a successful life transition. Such people reinforce your inner essence and the value of your contribution. All help diminish the toxic opinion of your detractors and naysayers. All tell you when your inner critic is overactive.

Fourth, reframe your change as transformational

For me the biggest lesson in the parting of ways is captured in the words of Lao Tzu

New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings. 

We have all had to outgrow mere survival. It is when we cling to an unproductive past and define it as our permanent home that we become unnecessarily stuck. In the words of Bill Plotkin 

Many of us learn to do our “survival dance,” but we never get to our actual “sacred dance.”

So what is your sacred dance?

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Loneliness or Solitude?

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”

Everybody’s goin’ out and havin’ fun
I’m just a fool for staying home and havin’ none
I can’t get over how she set me free
Oh, lonesome me

The song of the jilted lover in “Lonesome me” could well have the title “Covid Blues”. Isolated from others, with minimal contact with friends and family, and tired of impersonal Zoom meetings we long for meaningful social contact and friendly hugs. I don’t know how many people I have told “I would love to just sit down with you and have a beer”.

Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks” depicts the social isolation of strangers in a New York City diner after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1942. Olivia Laing in an Opinion piece in the NY Times “How to be Lonely” writes,

“Of all Hopper’s paintings, “Nighthawks” encapsulates urban loneliness, the feeling of being unable to connect despite being surrounded by millions of others”

Social distancing renders us all lonely. But it need not end with the “Lonesome Blues”. 

We can transform our sense of isolation through solitude.

There is a big difference between the two feeling states. 

Loneliness often involves bad mind hyper vigilance about perceived social threats. There is sleeplessness especially after viewing the news cycle for a few hours, hypochondria “Is this cough Covid?” and extreme sensitivity to rejection “Why are my family/friends not contacting me”. In all these there is the deep-seated fear of being abandoned.

However, there is an upside to loneliness as Olivia Laing writes,

“The weird gift of loneliness is that it grounds us in our common humanity. Other people have been afraid, waited, listened for news. Other people have survived. The whole world is in the same boat. However frightened we may feel, we have never been less alone”

I find it helpful to declare myself temporarily insane when my lonely blues kick in at 2am. A couple of cups of coffee and a walk with the dogs at dawn will expel that nonsense from my mind. 

Another loneliness management key is to transform it into solitude. The two states are qualitatively different. While both transport us inward the destination is different. 

Solitude takes us to the light within, the place where all is well with the soul, the source of personal nourishment, and the experience of oneness with all. That place of deep silence lends itself to quiet rest. Solitude can be found in meditation, centering prayer, long runs, and the planting of a garden. It is deeply present in nature or in the laughter of a child.

So seek and cherish solitude and transform loneliness.

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Check Your Humility Quotient

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom” –  Mahatma Gandhi

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself. But thinking of yourself less” – Rick Warren

A humble leader stands head and shoulders above others by virtue of this quality of character. So test yourself to see how humble you actually are.

With a simple yes/no answer to each question below get a quick read on your humility quotient.

1.    In pondering the big questions of life do you ever admit, “I don’t know”?

2.    Are you inclined to draw the answers out of others instead of dictating the answer?

3.    Are you well aware of your human limitations and failings?

4.    Do you recognize that your success in life is built on the shoulders of others?

5.    Do you have a daily sense of gratitude?

6.    Do you recognize the contribution of other cultures to the strength of your own?

7.    Do you possess a self-deprecating sense of humor?

8.    Do you put the needs of others before your own?

9.   Is your success determined more by the contribution you make than by the competition you win?

10. Do you downplay your sense of importance and entitlement?

  Scores (# of times you answer yes)

8 and above – high level of humility and self-awareness

6-7 – moderate level of humility and self-awareness

3-5 – A little arrogant with low self-awareness

0-2 – You need to work on becoming more humble

After you rate yourself have others rate your level of humility. Compare your scores with theirs to determine possible blind spots and areas of your life that need work.

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Hope in Challenging Times

These are challenging times to say the least. Here are some best practices that bolster resilience and generate hope for ourselves and others.

1.  Helplessness is learned

We don’t have to be helpless bystanders to the trials of life.

The other day on our walk with the dogs, I shared with a tourist that we were having a drought in New Mexico. He commented, cynically:

“Soon this area will become a hot desert and the river that runs through your property will dry up”. 

Where did he learn this negative fatalistic response?

Researchers have studied the phenomena of learned helplessness. People (initially dogs) were exposed in experiments to situations where they were trapped in a mildly painful environment. Initially they were able to escape. However, when all exits were blocked they passively adapted to the pain. Feeling trapped by life’s circumstances can lead to a fatalistic acceptance of one’s lot. It does not have to be that way. We can learn resilience.

The antidote is to adopt new attitudes and behaviors that will likely produce positive change. We can do this without denial, reducing our circumstances to something that is only “in our heads”, or becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem.

2. Attitude as a choice

Sometimes under sustained stress I don’t take care for myself. I can become grumpy and unnecessarily reactive.

In recent months, I have made a different choice not to react to unpleasant situations with negativity. At dawn, when the dog whines to be let out, I remind myself to get up without complaining. I tell myself rather to breathe and stay in the moment. I then look out of the window and take in the glorious sunrise. Anyway I can always go back to sleep when the dog comes in!

3. Radical Empathy as a Goal

Walking a mile in another’s shoes is the beginning of empathy. But it is not enough. Isabel Wilkerson in he magnificent book “Caste” writes

“Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work educating oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not to imagine what we would feel”

4.  Helping as a Practice

Millions of our fellow citizens are in dire straits. Home evictions, food insecurity, Covid-19, unemployment, lack of medical coverage, and racial injustice are just a few of the challenges people face. How can employed persons like myself with relative security reach out and help?

There is a saying that goes “A person too wrapped up in the self makes a small and miserable package.” So we can become conscious of situations where we can give back. We have joined a group that feeds the homeless. I love the quote by Albert Einstein

“If the majority knew the root of this evil, the the road to its cure would not be long”

Einstein made it a point to be informed and involved is speaking out on the systemic racism in his day. Brian Moynihan CEO of Bank of America has encouraged his leaders to have “courageous conversations” about race relations in the workplace and society. I have coached some of the leaders facilitating these conversations. These have been difficult but valuable discussions.

5. Hope as a habit

Some people have a natural sunny disposition. They are biased towards hope. I have to work on developing a habit of hope.

Here’s how.

Read/watch less bad news each day.

Starting one’s day by dwelling on national and domestic disasters, workplace difficulties, and the seeming dearth of values in our society is a real downer! Instead I start my day by attempting to,

Find Time for silence.

My mind is like a barrel-full of noisy dysfunctional monkeys. It chatters all the time with thoughts de jour centered on worry and ego concerns. I cannot make these thoughts disappear. I just observe them with compassion and detachment. No matter how dark things become I reflect that there are good people in this world showing kindness and justice and that 

Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 o Avoid Danny and Debby Downer

Each reinforces a negative predisposition. I was once told, “surround yourself with truth-telling and supportive friends and not a psyc caseload.”  Hope is “caught” as well as “taught”. We absorb it by osmosis from those who radiate positive energy, humor, and playfulness. Employees look to their leaders for this positivity.

We can’t deny that our world is full of scary and unjust stuff. I cannot control how these unfortunate circumstances came about. But I can speak up, support those in distress, and act with courage to make what the late John Lewis called “good trouble”.

We have the power within us to generate hope and act with courage.

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An American in Central Mexico: Cross-Cultural Lessons

Written by Kristine MacKain, Ph.D with Cedric Johnson, Ph.D

Cross-cultural differences have always intrigued and sometimes frustrated my husband and me.  Cedric has lived in four different countries and I’ve lived in three. Over the seven years we lived together in Mexico, little by little (poco a poco), we improved our cross-cultural skills. We learned by watching other North Americans make cultural gaffes as well as reflecting on the many missteps we made ourselves.

When we lived in central Mexico, we would often spend a month or two visiting other Mexican states. While vacationing in Michoacan, we encountered a cross-cultural breakdown in communication that we thought was worth noting. We were eating lunch in a local restaurant in the town of Patzcuaro. The restaurant owner (Mexican) was standing behind the counter when an American woman entered the room holding a large vase of flowers. She marched briskly across the floor, set her vase noisily on the counter, and turned aggressively toward the owner.

American: [speaking loudly, stressed]: “Did you get my email!?” 

Mexican: [Remained silent and avoided eye contact]

American: “I emailed you on Tuesday [which was 3 days ago] because I wanted you to have the tables set when I arrived.”

Mexican: [Stared ahead toward the wall at the other end of the room, did not respond.]

American: [raised her voice louder]: “DID you get my email on Tuesday?”

Mexican: [now agitated, continued to avoid eye contact with the American while brushing away imaginary crumbs off the checkout counter.] After a few more seconds of silence, the Mexican said in a quiet voice, “Yes.”

American: “Then why didn’t you answer? I needed the tables set by now.”

Mexican: [Responded again with silence.]

American: “Can you have someone set up the tables now?”

Mexican: “Yes, we can set them up in 15 minutes after the birthday party in the room you are using has ended.”

The American returned to her car to get the remainder of the vases for her event. We turned to each other at our table and remarked that she must be a new resident because she was unaware of the implicit rules of social engagement in Mexico. Later, we asked her where she was from and how long she had lived in Patzcuaro. She said she was from the United States and had lived in Mexico for 10 years. 

What could the American woman have done to resolve the issue with grace and not trigger awkwardness and avoidance from the Mexican owner?

Show respect by engaging in social protocol 

The American neglected to start the interaction with a greeting; rather, she went straight to the problem.  In Mexican culture, when two people initially engage each other, they start the conversation with something like: Hola, buenas tardes. ¿Cómo estás? Then, each conversant asks some polite questions and/or makes comments about family, the weather, how business is going and so on. Before launching into the business at hand, Mexicans work to establish good will, respect, and trust with the goal of building a strong working relationship.

Work to save face

The Mexican was embarrassed by the public nature of the confrontation. Everyone in the restaurant heard that he had not responded to the email. A Mexican in the American’s position would not enter the restaurant and accuse its owner of dropping the ball as the American woman did. Rather, a Mexican would not criticize and might even diffuse the situation by taking the blame himself or herself.

Communicate indirectly when making her request

In Spanish conversation, Mexicans use what is called the subjunctive mood while making a request of another; for example, they use phrases such as: “with your permission, if you are able,…” This social orientation puts the power in the hands of the person to whom you are making the request; for example, “With your permission, can the tables be available in the afternoon?”  In the States, the power is in the hands of the person making the demands. For example, “I need you to have the tables ready for me by the afternoon.” In Mexican culture, one does not generally make demands of, or appear to assert power over, another person with one’s requests.

Avoid conflict

Mexicans do not generally respond to requests by directly saying, “No.” They work hard to please others and consider it more polite to tell you what you want to hear rather than disappoint you. They also communicate their intention to follow through with a request; however, that should not be interpreted as a social contract. In life, things come up that may make it impossible to realize one’s good intentions (eg, in this instance, the birthday party made it impossible to have the tables ready for the American). Also, while Americans generally address a problem directly, Mexicans do not necessarily communicate when there is a snafu; however, they do expect others to adapt to the unexpected situation with grace.

Examine your expectations

When we engage people from another culture (either within or outside the U.S.) we typically expect them to have the same perspectives that we do and to behave as we do. In our example, the American clearly entered the restaurant with a set of expectations about the proprietor’s obligations to her and that he would deal with her directly to resolve the issue. 

To become more adept in cross-cultural communication, we need to ask ourselves the following: 

  • How can we raise our awareness of our host culture’s values so that we behave appropriately? 
  • What are the basic assumptions of the host culture? 
  • What everyday customs does the host culture engage in and how can we accommodate to those different customs as we engage with each other? 
  • What are our national cultural values, basic assumptions, and customs and how do these contrast or align with those of our host culture? 
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When A Culture Chews You Up and Spits You Out – What Then?

Life, for better or worse, expresses itself in community. As Thomas Merton points out,

“To live in communion, in genuine dialog with others is absolutely necessary if a person is to remain human”.

Community also has a dark side. There are groups I typically shun with negative and critical energy. They seem to rebel and react against most everything. Some community tussles go on for years. Take the 400-year-old running feud between the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s that is part of American folklore. 

We all have had our fill of community fights. Some of them have been over differing political issues. Others have been personal when someone gets on our nerves. And many times the core of the conflict is over differing values.

My biggest lesson on living in any community (church, club, new country, village) is that 

Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. (The late business management guru Peter Drucker)

Any community one enters is a culture of its own. And the cultural distance between oneself and that community is a measure of how well the person effectively adapts.

When we arrived in our village five years ago I assumed that the folks would embrace change easily. I hoped that I could bring my corporate consulting experience and style to the table and make a contribution to the community.

That was my first big mistake. I misread the culture.

Early in our stay I was asked to chair a meeting of residents to discuss a project of common interest. My question at the end of the meeting “Now, who is going to do what by when?” was met with silence and cold stares. What I did not realize was that in this culture people habitually talked and argued (mostly) about topics for years on end. They never seemed to get things accomplished. My action oriented corporate ways dropped like a lead brick.

What happened?

The culture ate me for breakfast.

Beyond Personal Alienation

Rather than concluding that one is an “oddball”, passively accepting divisions, or descending into learned helplessness, we need to

Go inward before we go outward.

Taking a good look at who we are by asking the question “who am I at the core of my being?” This helps us become centered on our possibilities rather than on our divisions.

That is what “loving your neighbor as yourself” is all about. That is the place of rapprochement and the building block of community. It is also a way of seeing myself in others, both the dark as well as the light side. And through this inner essence we have more in common with each other than that which divides us.

Learn the culture before you act

One is in for a very bumpy ride if there is minimal understanding of the values of a new culture.

I should have know better than to make assumptions about my new community. Just because most of the people were progressive politically did not mean that they easily embraced change in their village. It was only later that I discovered that the need for folks to talk and reluctance to act was part of a very old cultural mix. If I could do things over I would listen more and not push for action so quickly. Eventually this culture gets things done their way. Finishing it yesterday is from my corporate world.

My final question in any cultural transition is “How can I build bridges and not walls?”

Other Blogs on Culture and Leadership on This Site

Cultural sensitivity: an example of a USA-Mexican interaction gone awry

An Effective Cultural Connection – A Traveler Not A Tourist

Finding the Right Key in a Cross Cultural Communication

The Ups and Downs in Cultural Conformity

The Meaning of Work in Different Cultures

Cultural Factors in Developing a Leadership Brand

The Journey of Cultural Adaptation

Basics of Cross-Cultural Communication

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10 Years – 400 Blogs – Top Ten Blogs

Ten years ago I wrote my first blog on Inspirational Leadership. To date 400 blogs have been posted.

The top 10 (most read) blogs are listed below.

Please enter the title in the Search Box.

  • The Meaning of Work – A Cultural Perspective
  • The Struggle Between the Ego and the Soul
  • The Power of Self-Disclosure
  • Transforming the Destructive Power of Envy – Cinderella and her Sisters
  • Humility – A Case Study
  • Achieving Skillful Discussion by Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy by Roger Hoffmann
  • Living with a Narcissist
  • Expand your Self-Awareness
  • Source of Humility – Awareness and Gratitude
  • Ten Basics of Cross-Cultural Communication

Your responses will be most welcome

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Never Miss A Good Crisis

We are all in crisis right now.

But depending on our safety net (health, income, community support) as well as our attitude (are we scared, bold, or wise), we have the potential to make this a positive experience.

I can say these are some of the best days of my recent life. I’ve dumped my cluttered life , valued the curtailment of business travel, opened my heart to listen to the dissent of millions, withdrawn from unproductive social relationships, and taken the opportunity to go on an inward spiritual quest. I know that I am very fortunate. I don’t have to sit in food lines for hours, apply for unemployment reimbursement, or fear for my very life.

Here’s why I view this as a good crisis.

The Voice of the Oppressed is Being Heard

The message of millions demonstrating for justice is coming across loud and clear. At least to those who have the ears to hear.

I believe this could be an “American Spring”. 

We are in the middle of a revolution that has the potential of bringing us to what true democracy means. We should take into account the voices of our millions of disenfranchised and impoverished brothers and sisters. The people on the streets and prophets like Bishop William Barber are our change agents and hope for the future. These folks, more than the politicians, are the ones who will shape a better future for all.

It is not enough that Corporations are supporting Black Lives Matter with banners and financial bequests. For instance, is Facebook willing to weed out the twisted messages that stoke violence? Are large corporations, some of whom were the recipients of bail out money, willing to hire more persons of color, fire employees who show hate and prejudice, not cut their workforce, and actively work for a change of the culture of white male privilege?

Things Will Never Be “Normal” Again

We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that our world is forever changed. The other day on a videoconference one of my clients said “Cedric do you have a plan for your consulting practice in a world where WFH and social distancing is the norm and face to face consulting becomes a thing mostly of the past”? 

This is not a stretch of the imagination. Today we have Covid-19. What virus will be the next to hit our world? And why does everyone have to go to an office building to work? Let’s not allow a failure of imagination to steal from us the magic of this moment.

We all want our lives to go back to normal, attend ball games and concerts and other large social gatherings again. But what if such “normal” activity makes us a medical danger to others and ourselves?

What if I am being realistic and we have to redefine what it means to be normal and productive? 

An Opportunity to Define a “New Normal”

When the fuselage of a plane is placed in a wind tunnel during the production process the stress test exposes cracks and weaknesses in that aircraft. The upside of the current crisis has demonstrated cracks in our lives all the way from broken social structures, overly busy lives, and our life priorities.

The recalibration of life can be a very productive experience. Instead of shrinking back in fear, we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves as we search out new work expression and ways to serve others. Not only are “Times A Changin” . They already have. So,


What could your new normal look like?

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