Dec 312011
 

 

He sat alone, with his head buried in his hands. One of the other adults on the Snowball weekend turned to me and suggested he didn’t look good. I offered to speak with him. As I approached, he looked up and I asked if he was okay. With sad, averted eyes he told me he was.
As I turned to leave, something inside begged me not to walk away; I knew he was not telling me the truth of his life. I returned as he stood up, looked into his eyes and said, “Here is what your words and body language just spoke to me. ‘I am really not okay, but you are not the person I would talk with about it.’ You don’t need to talk with me; I just want to know you have someone you can talk with.” In that instant, his body language, and our relationship, changed. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “Thank you, I’m just going through some tough times, but I’ll be okay…and yes, I do have people I can talk with.” I offered him a hug and left. I still didn’t even know his name.
At the end of the weekend, intermixed with numerous “warm fuzzies” written to me by participants, was one that said, in part, “You’ve shown that some people really do care. You’ve given me a reason to carry on.” The note was signed, “Love, Dakota”. It was several days before I could confirm that this kind and generous note was from the young man with whom I had the brief exchange the Saturday before.
For the next two years, I saw Dakota Lewis on Snowball weekends and at occasional Thursday night meetings. We shared many emotionally horrific times, including the suicide of his father. Dakota continued to affirm—through sincere embraces and many kind, generous words—the beautiful person he saw in me; even if I was often unable to see it in myself. I too, spoke to him of the beautiful young man he had become—a person able to instantly see, and speak to, the beauty in others.
After he graduated from high school, our opportunity to see, or speak with, one another became more and more rare. A graduation gift, and several text and voice messages, went unanswered.
The year 2010 ended quietly in my life, but I awoke early New Year’s morning to learn that the young man who so often pointed to my inner beauty had taken his life in the moments before the new year emerged. As hard as so many of us tried, Dakota was never able to see the extraordinary gifts we could see shining from within him.
On this, the first anniversary of his suicide, I sit with tears welling up inside…tears that represent a mix of sadness over losing him, and guilt for not being there one more time to draw him back into his life…a life that touched and changed many others.
As the New Year begins a few hours from now, I will continue to try to help others see the beauty that exists within them. But I will try to remain cognizant that the only one who I can truly help see inner beauty is me. If I cannot learn to witness mine, I remain a hypocrite when I try to point others towards theirs. As is so often noted, changing the world truly is an inside job.
I love you Dakota. I miss you terribly. And I will be forever grateful you remain one of my most profound teachers.
Dec 232011
 
Note: I wrote the following for the January, 2012 Batavia Chamber of Commerce Newsletter.
 
“People hate change” is perhaps the most incorrect aphorism ever uttered. People LOVE change. In fact we crave it. On a CT scan, the human brain lights up in the face of it. If you put a human into an environment devoid of all change, they die!
If humans hate change, we would have spurned cell phones, ignored the Internet, snubbed the personal computer, rejected social media and eschewed wifi. Starbucks, Google, Facebook, Prius, Under Armour, iPad, Blue-Ray and Harry Potter would never have altered our lexicon.
Why is it, then, when the phrase “people hate change” is uttered, everyone nods in agreement? What is it that propels a book about the fear of change to the New York Times business bestseller list and keeps it there for more than 5 years? Maybe it’s because of a different fear…the fear of who we fear we are.
The parable in Who Moved My Cheese is based on two “little people”: named Hem and Haw who, after becoming complacent about what was once a large cache of cheese, deny their fate when, one day, it is gone.
Everyone has been caught acting like Hem or Haw. Most can remember moments when complacency about family, friends or career, left us suddenly lost, or in denial when a foundational piece suddenly crumbled.
But there is a danger in buying into the parable of WMMC with too much gusto. Because we are only privy to one part of their lives, we are left to believe that “hemness” and “hawness” fully defines the two main characters. Then, when I am tempted to even think, “Yeah, I’m a lot like that guy Hem,” I run the risk of seeing myself fully defined in that way. Then fear sets in…fear that I am Hem, I have always been Hem, and, I am sentenced to a life of “hemness”.
It’s true, each of us has a bit of “hemness” about us. We might even see a bit of Hem when we look into the mirror. But it is dangerous to allow those characterizations to define our lives.
I don’t want to be, nor do I deserve to be, defined by the way I behave in some portion of my life. I know I don’t accept change readily when it’s forced upon me. I am facile at finding reasons why a necessary change suggested by another is riddled with weaknesses…won’t work… or makes little sense. Like Hem, I am prepared to sit in the corner of life’s maze and wait for my cache of cheese to return.
But, there are many ways in which I love change. Much of what I believe today no longer resonates with what I believed just a few short years ago. When I look around at the things I have embraced with enthusiasm and gratitude, I know I am not Hem or Haw in most situations.
So, when “hemness” rears its ugly head in my life, or the life of others, what then?
First, I need to find the generosity to acknowledge that this moment does not define a life. It simply means that, momentarily, the perceived costs of change ignite a fear that the perceived benefits do not yet assuage. Once the benefits outweigh the costs, fear eases and change become easy.
To not offer the generosity of acknowledgement in a moment of fear does violence to others… or worse yet, to ourselves…and fuels the fear of who we fear we are.
Dec 172011
 

 

Note: The following will be published in the January/February issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
As 2012 begins, I am aware it is a time during which many reflect on their lives and consider promises to themselves and the world for renewal. We call them New Year’s resolutions.
But as I imagine the New Year, there is a different kind of resolution I seek. Musical harmony reaches a point of resolution when a dissonant note or chord is followed by a consonant one. The dissonant note in my life, for which I seek a consonant resolution, has to do with a kind of selfishness that springs from what I imagined was generosity.
In the closing months of 2011, I spent time with a young man who was struggling mightily over the untimely death of a close friend. I did little more that listen and offer a hug when I thought it might help. Once or twice I looked into his eyes to reaffirm his value, and acknowledge his pain. It felt like the right thing to do. A note he wrote confirmed that what I offered was deeply appreciated. It said, in part, “It was your gentle hand that guided me through these dark times. I credit you with the fact that I’m still here on this earth.” Those words—and what they implied—brought tears to my eyes; tears that return even now as I recall them. His words were unexpected, kind and very generous.
I responded by offering to be there for him if ever he needed me. “Find me,” I said, “no matter what.” He promised he would, but then added words, the depth and sincerity of which I seldom hear from a person not yet 20. “Roger, if you ever need anyone, I will be there for you.” In that moment I found them a bit jarring. What might it mean for me, in a dark moment to call a teen and ask for support? At first, my confusion was wrapped around his ability to offer advice to someone so much older. What words could he possible conjure that would offer comfort? But as I reflected more deeply, I wondered if I would have the courage to call and insert my sadness and misery into his life. How could I burden someone else, especially someone so young, with difficulties that seem insoluble even to me?
That is when the dissonant chord struck. As a friend said, “You are really very selfish with your generosity.” It was okay for me to be the giver. It was okay for me to try to save him, but I was stubbornly unwilling to give him the same opportunity…unwilling to be the recipient of his kind and generous nature. And while he may not conjure words to help me understand the path forward, he is every bit as capable as I to listen, offer a hug when he thinks it might help, or look into my eyes to reaffirm my value and acknowledge my pain.
So the resolution I seek as I peer tentatively into the New Year is the consonant chord of acceptance: to turn to my young friend and say with the deepest sincerity, “Yes! If you are willing to allow me to come to your aid, I, too, will accept your kindness when the slings and arrows life hurls at me penetrate too deeply.”
It is said it is more blessed to give than to receive, but when I am only willing to give, I create a dissonance in the world that begs for resolution. I add harmony when I find the courage to tear down walls I have built to protect myself and allow others to be generous in return. It is that resolution I seek in 2012 as I try not to be so selfish with my generosity.
I wish you great harmony in the New Year.
Dec 032011
 

 

Note: I wrote the following for the December issue of the Batavia Chamber newsletter. And while it speaks directly to issues related to entrepreneurs, I think the message of how we prioritize the moments of our lives has broader meaning.
In the context of our lives, even five minutes is perhaps too much.
Two critical activities for any entrepreneur are networking and proposal writing. Recent conversations about both called me to think more deeply about our lives and the moments that constitute them.
“The founder of BNI says 6-1/2 hours per week is about the right amount of time to spend networking. What do the rest of you think?” That question began a conversation at a recent Chamber meeting.
The statement is, in isolation, meaningless. It’s like saying $60,000 per year is enough money, 75 years is sufficient for a lifetime or 5 inches of rain per month is too much. If a child dying of cancer requires treatments costing $10,000 per month…or a scientist publishes a seminal work at age 80…or a tropical rainforest supports untold valuable species, arbitrary limits are not only meaningless, they leave us practically and emotionally destitute.
The metrics I use, and the boundaries I place on them, must be considered in the context of what the world needs from the time I spend on this planet.
If it seems plebian to compare business networking with illness, seminal works or the planet’s ecology, I disagree. Steve Jobs said that awareness of the limits of his life added meaning to every moment he spent. If your life, and the lives of those around you, is left unimproved by the time you spend together, then five minutes per week is too much. If, on the other hand, you are facile at making connections that move you and the world forward, then perhaps 60 hours per week is not nearly enough.
Only you can decide what it really means to move you and the world forward. Few people understood this better than Mike Jacobson, a former Chamber member stolen from us by pancreatic cancer. He never left an event with fewer than three people he could contact in the ensuing days. It was mostly about business, but Mike’s love for Batavia was deeply embedded in his definition of what it meant to move forward. He understood that the emotional content of his journey outweighed the practical.
What then of proposals? I once had a friend who claimed he never wrote a proposal until the client agreed, in advance, it would be accepted.
A proposal is an agreement about how the joint worlds of writer and client will improve when signed and implemented. Whether we want to admit it or not, proposals are often accepted or rejected before a single word is committed to paper. Too often, the phrase “Send me a proposal” is used to indicate the conversation is over—no agreement has been made that will satisfy the practical and the emotional needs of the client.
When I began searching for words to etch the boundaries of networking and proposal writing, I imagined the tasks as only tangentially related. To the extent they are viewed as emotionless steps in the process of creating business, we miss something important about life. Each is an agreement with those around us about how we can jointly move humanity forward both practically and emotionally. If the time we spend is aimed at anything less, then indeed, even five minutes is too much.