Two Paths, One Journey Toward Light and Hope

We lived and studied in Boston at a remarkable time. In the immortal words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

It was the best of times in that new voices and movements were emerging and echoing across the country. As a reporter and then news editor for the Northeastern News and for local newspapers on various co-op jobs, I got to observe and even interview voices such as U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Betty Shabazz and Dr. Timothy Leary. My reporting assignments gave me a front-row seat to several movements, three in particular: women’s rights, Black students and civil rights.

It was also the worst of times, writing in the midst of massive, sometimes violent anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. The Black Panthers were frightening to some as a growing political force. Students were being killed and arrested on college and university campuses. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a segregationist, ran for president, again. 

About 500,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 of them died, along with 2 million civilians on both sides and 200,000 to 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers.

Although I did not have words for it at the time, we were witnessing the differing impacts of leaders who spread light and those who spread darkness over the land; those who created combat, and those who believed in the possibility of a world that works for all of us. Many times, it seemed like the world as I understood it was falling apart. I felt frightened, sad, yet exhilarated. I believed we could make a positive difference in the world by writing, speaking and demonstrating.

You don’t have to go back a half century to know what this felt like. We just spent four years experiencing leaders who spread darkness and made us enemies. It’s not over. However, I believe we are about to experience four years of a leader who will spread light, encouraging us to consider being allies, if not friends. My days as an NU journalist highlight this possibility: The choice is, of course, ours.
The Age of Wisdom, the Age of Foolishness

After graduation, I pursued a career in journalism, believing that it was the foundation of democracy. I still believe that. However, along the way, I realized that the observer and reporter role didn’t suit me. As I saw how decisions were made every day that affected people, I decided to change course and become the facilitator in the room — someone who would help people listen to one another so they could make wiser decisions together for the world, both at large and local.

Perhaps it was a bit foolish on my part to become more interested in process than content; to be more interested in who was involved in making decisions and how they were being made. My tilt towards process became clear during an early trial run of Amtrak from Boston to D.C. with Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe. I missed a scoop for my beloved city editor, Smitty, at The Brockton Enterprise (now The Enterprise), because I asked the governor questions about how he would make the decision on a judicial appointment, forgetting to ask what decision he would make. 

In hindsight, I can see how I began to shift away from the neutral observer/reporter role and toward a keen interest in the impact of how things are done. Noticing the contrast between leaders who brought people together instead of tearing them apart in politics, in demonstrations and in the media made me want to be a part of facilitating a more unifying process. 

Believing in Effective Process

I didn’t know the word “process” then, but I certainly know it now. It is what I have dedicated my life to: advocating as a consultant and facilitator for effective and inclusive processes that help people bring the best of who they are to genuine dialogues to create collective wisdom. My intention in working with leaders and organizations in all sectors on several continents, along with community groups in my home region, is to help people make decisions that aspire to contribute to seasons of light and hope.

One of the leaders with whom I was privileged to work was one of the “boat people.” As a former officer in the South Vietnamese army, he became one of the refugees fleeing Vietnam by boat and ship for years after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. As a senior executive in the pharmaceutical industry, he remained deeply affected by his experience during the war that I and my fellow students had protested. He remains in my memory as one of those leaders who, despite his traumatic history, chose to spread light through his kind ways and sense of responsibility to those who worked for him.  

The second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, was killed in a plane crash in 1961, when I was in elementary school. His words continue to reverberate down 60 years to today: “Do you create or destroy? That’s for your ordeal by fire to answer.” We create or destroy through our words, intentions, tone of voice, the quality of presence we bring to any interaction; through collaborative or combative processes; and through the quality of our listening and the spirit of our questioning.

Ordeals by fire seem to be one of the ways through which we fragile human beings learn to create or, unfortunately, to destroy. We have a choice. It is a choice we get to make moment to moment. You never know what good might come of choosing to create rather than destroy. Over time, those choices lead to a pattern in the neuroplastic human brain that casts light or shadows onto circumstances that move us forward or backward. 

As I think back on my career, it seems that starting with journalism and then diverging onto a path of consulting and facilitating cover similar ground. Both are instrumental to democracy. Both roles require being a neutral third party and painting a picture of the whole situation. Both involve helping people make choices based on facts, and both are windows into the best and worst of times in human situations as they continue to evolve.

Mary Gelinas is the author of Talk Matters