13-12-11 or 11-12-13

Countdown or Countup


Hello my friends,


Today is 11-12-13: the eleventh day of the twelfth month of the thirteenth year. Except for my US friends who celebrated 11-12-13 in November and have had to wait a month for this message.


That, in fact, was the original appeal of the Arithmodigmaphilia dates—a series of twelve dates on which I could write to friends all over the world without confusing anyone about whether the day or the month came first in the date.


I grew up on the west side of the Atlantic where people put the month first. I’ve lived the second half of my life on the east side of the Atlantic where people put the day first. And now I have learned that I can find files faster on my computer by using a third sequence—putting the year first!


When I use that computer date sequence of 13-12-11, today’s date looks like a countdown. But if you put either the month first or the day first, then it’s a countup.


When I wrote the first draft of this message, I wasn’t sure if countup was even a real word. 


But, as the saying goes, I knew who would know. I have a new client this year: the European Space Agency. Two of the many fascinating people I am working with have served as astronauts on the International Space Station. So I asked them a question: The countdown goes down to lift-off. Then what happens? Is the time going up called a countup or is it called mission time or is it called something else?


Both men responded immediately (thanks Thomas and Frank!) with the answer. It is called MET: Mission Elapsed Time.


Mission Elapsed Time is an intriguing concept for me as I approach my 70th birthday next spring—not only has a lot of time elapsed but I’m reminded that this elapsing time is a mission.


Recently I watched a TED Talk by Jane Fonda on how to live in what she calls the Third Act. She points out that our generation is living an average of 34 years longer than previous ones—so we have the chance to live an entire second adult life. And if each act is 30 years, then 70 is not even halfway through the third act. 


Jane Fonda spoke of old age as a staircase. Although we gradually accept the downward decay toward death, we can also develop an entropy-defying upward movement of the spirit. 


The image that emerged for me was of a staircase that is both a downward spiral and an upward spiral. Since spirals expand outward, the more accurate term is helix—which reminded me of the double helix structure of DNA. So the upward and downward spirals (or helixes) are the basis—as well as the growing and the slowing—of our lives.

The downward spiral toward death comes home to me more often now. Sometimes it’s because of what happens to others. Sometimes it’s because of what happens to me. Or both.


In August, I got the diagnosis: prostate cancer. In October, I had a radical prostatectomy. As of now, the cancer is gone—and they will keep checking every three months.


Life without a prostate has its own unfortunate difficulties. However, being alive is a wonderful compensation! The long days of the countdown to the surgery were tense. But lift-off was successful and my mission time is still elapsing.


That was a downward spiral but, as in the double helix, there are links across to the upward spiral. The outpouring of kindness, support, and good energy from so many loving people has been both heart-warming and body-healing.


The downward spiral appeared again in recent weeks, first with the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy and then with the death of Nelson Mandela. 


Both Kennedy and Mandela continue to inspire us in many ways. I would like to focus on one way in particular. Both were eager to learn. Unlike a certain British prime minister who prided herself as “not for turning” both Kennedy and Mandela humbled themselves for learning.


After the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy said, “How could I have been so stupid?” And then he did something about it. He changed the decision-making process with his team so that one year later they made the right decisions in the Cuban missile crisis.


Mandela began his opposition to apartheid with non-violent protest. When the government responded with brutality, he lost faith in non-violence and set up an armed operation that began engaging in sabotage.


During his 27 years in prison, Mandela learned and returned to non-violence—with an insistence on the right of each person to be free. His clear commitment to forgiveness instead of revenge transformed South Africa and inspired the world.


At this point, everyone seems to be praising Mandela, just as many people praised Kennedy last month. But that was not always the case. This fact came up as Rosie and I talked about our own original views. Growing up in a white family in South Africa, Rosie only knew of Mandela as a threat to the future of her country. Growing up in a Republican family in the US, I only knew of Kennedy as the opponent of the man my parents voted for.


Now I listen to people wondering why don’t we have people like Kennedy or Mandela any more—and I think that perhaps we do.


Just as Rosie learned and then changed her ideas about Mandela and just as I learned and then changed my ideas about Kennedy, we can be inspired by both men to continue learning, to continue changing ourselves, and to continue changing the world. As June Jordan says, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”


Or, as Dina Glouberman says, our life’s work is to inspire and to be inspired. My friend Den reminds me that when the downward spiral pauses things, then it’s my turn to absorb inspiration and encouragement from others. So I am deeply moved when Alan shares his own experience of recovering from this cancer. I am delighted when Hans Georg and I discover a mutual love of choral music. And I am inspired when Corinne tells me of yet more serious dreams. 


As the year draws to a close, we count down to a new year. And a countdown is good for a deadline—like the deadline to finish this because my friends in Asia are already halfway through counting down this day!


A countup is good for a lifeline—lifting off on yet another mission. So after you get to the deadline or to the end of the year, then it is time for lift-off and more Mission Elapsed Time.


As many of you know, my own mission is to encourage serious dreams. Mandela’s serious dream was a commitment to “ensuring that each, without regard to race, colour, gender or social status, could have the possibility to reach for the skies.”


Two of Kennedy’s serious dreams were the Peace Corps and going to the moon. He inspired people to go out into the world and to go out of this world. He also wanted them to return. He spoke of both “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” And the official Third Goal of the Peace Corps is to bring the learning back home.


I’ve been working with clients this year who have many serious dreams. And who bring the learning home. That enables me to follow my own advice: do what you love with people you love. 


Some people believe we should focus on feeding the people on this planet. Other people believe we should focus on building a strong economy to keep this planet going. And still other people believe we should prepare for expanding beyond our first planet. I happen to believe we can and should focus on all three.


So it is a great joy to work with others who share those serious dreams: people at Unilever who are involved in the company’s partnership with the UN’s World Food Programme; people who used to work at Unilever and are now bringing their skills to WFP; people at ESA who combine the expansion of the space business with the vision of living beyond our own planet; people at WFP who are not only feeding millions of people but are shifting toward purchasing the food from millions of smallholder farmers.


So today the countdown of life continues: 13, 12, 11 on down to lift-off, while the countup of life simultaneously continues: 11, 12, 13 on upward from lift-off toward the mission elapsed time of our serious dreams. Some serious dreams we will live to see; other serious dreams we must live so that others will see.