Tough Decisions – Use Your Heart: Alison Meyer at TEDxBerkeley (Transcript)

We all have wisdom, wisdom deep inside us, wisdom that we can tap into in a few calm moments. “But Alison, I don’t have a few calm moments. In fact I have no calm moments!”

“OK, I hear you; I get it.”

So I invite you for the next few minutes, journey with me on an exploration of what it might be like to give yourself those few calm moments. Especially in tough times, especially when you have a thorny problem you just can’t decide what to do about. But before I share with you and take you on this journey, I want to share a bit of my story, two stories of times when I faced difficult challenges.

My mother always said from the time I was one year old, I was trying to catch up to my older sister. Here’s a picture she took around that time: in the back, it’s my brother on my dad’s lap, the beautiful little girl on your right is my sister Cecily, and the little baby pushing up on her arms, and going, “What’s going on? What’s going on?”, that’s me.

So it was like this pretty much throughout our childhood. I watched how she was, and I loved just how accomplished she was, and my parents thought she was amazing, and I thought she was amazing. I couldn’t do anything like her. I remember when our brother was getting married when we were teenagers.

I went down to Cost Plus, and I bought this really beautiful vase, and I was very proud of it. My sister made them a quilt by hand. It took her a year. So in her late 20s, when she was diagnosed with cancer, I felt helpless. I didn’t know anything about medicine. She was living in New York, and I didn’t know what to do.

The cancer got worse; it spread to her lungs, and she came back to San Francisco, so that my parents could take care of her because she was too weak to take care of herself. And I was so scared. I think I buried my head in the sand in February of the year, when she came back. At the time, I was taking singing lessons, and the cancer moved to her lungs, and she asked me, “Could you teach me some breathing exercises?” But I didn’t feel capable of teaching her, so I said no. In fact, I don’t think I even said no; I think I just avoided it.

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So, five days before Christmas, at age of 32, she died. I didn’t know what I had done. I was so sad; I cried for a year. Have you ever cried for a year? I was so ashamed of all the things I didn’t realize I should’ve done. But, you know, life is funny; sometimes, it gives us another chance.

And I got a second chance. Three years after my sister got sick, my mother got sick Leukemia. When I looked back to the time when my sister was sick, I thought of all the things I’d never thought of doing in the moment because I was too afraid. I don’t know anything about medicine, about this disease; I don’t know how to help these, my sister, who was older than me; and I looked into my heart and I said, “I know I don’t know what to do, but I am going to figure it out.”

So, for the next almost a year, I went to the doctor with my mother, I advocated with her, for her. And when she passed away 4 years almost to the day after my sister, she was surrounded by people who loved her, and I had no regrets.

So, regrets. It was when I came to Berkeley that I heard of the work of Angelus Arianne, cultural anthropologist. She talks about paying attention to what has heart and meaning. She talks about the heart having four chambers. Now I want to ask you to try this with me for just two minutes.

So if you have anything in your hands, put it down, and put your feet on the floor. Take your hand, and put it on your heart, and close your eyes. The heart has four chambers, full-hearted and a half-hearted. So, ask yourself, look inside. Think of a problem that is working you right now.

Am I half-hearted or full-hearted? When we are half-hearted, we don’t want to be there; we avoid things, “Oh, my heart’s not in it.” If we hear the word ‘should’, “I should do this,” that’s half-hearted. When we are full-hearted, we are present, we are there. Closed-hearted and open-hearted. When our hearts are closed, we resist.

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When our hearts are closed, ideas don’t come in, people don’t come in, and we lock ourselves inside. Leaders need to be open-hearted to create trust. Open-heartedness leads to curiosity.

Third chamber; confused or clear. When my sister was sick I was confused; I didn’t know what to do. And then when my mother was sick, I was clear-hearted. The heart has clear yesses and clear noes and clear I-don’t-knows. When the heart says, “I don’t know,” then it’s time to wait.

Finally, the fourth chamber: strong-hearted or weak-hearted. When we are weak-hearted, we avoid things; we avoid conflict. When we are strong-hearted, we have the courage to do what we need to do. So, now, take one more breath. Listen to your heart. And now, when you are ready, open your eyes. Thank you for sharing these few calm moments with me.

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