Jan 292016
 

Note: The following will appear in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Since leaving my last job, when asked about the next phase of life, I generally reply “I’m seeking my vocation.” As it turns out, my vocation has been in search of me, but I was deaf to its call. Vocations, I have come to understand, can be patient and persistent.

Experiences on the suicide hotline crept into some of my writing, thinking and activities, but I never wanted, nor did I intend, to become “the guy who talks about suicide.” It felt too somber and terrifying. How could talking about suicide, especially teen suicide, bring anything other than grief and sadness?

Then, last summer, a local bank invited me to speak to their more senior account holders. They were interested in several essays from my blog; especially one entitled “A Time I Will Not See.” In it, I wrote how each of us will gain some measure of immortality through the messages our lives leave imprinted on youth. They will carry some of what they witness in us into a future we will not see. In my remarks at the bank, I backed gingerly into the topic of teen depression and suicide.

At the end of those remarks, one elderly gentleman—heavyset, gruff and wearing a baseball cap—pulled me aside. As tears welled up, he told me his grandson had recently ended his own life. Looking forlornly at the floor he continued, “I never saw it coming.” The unspoken words written unequivocally on his face asked “How could a grandfather not see that in his grandson?” When I explained he was not alone, teens often hide their deep sadness, it seemed to alleviate his overwhelming guilt is some small way. When I asked if I could give him a hug, tears returned and we shared a mutual embrace.

I began to speak to more senior communities, but instead of treading softly, I started by revealing that the young people they know and love—grandchildren, great grandchildren, grand nieces and nephews, and others—are at risk. Between the ages of 15 and 25, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. I explain the multiple trends and issues that make a young life difficult, and the myriad reasons young people remain cloaked in silence.

In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, and learned wisdom from their grandparents. Today, we lock away the wisdom of our elders behind the iron gates of retirement communities. As one woman told me, “now that my family is assured I am safe, cared for and comfortable, they don’t come to see me anymore.”

When I speak, my plea to elders—our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that they gently and generously reassert their influence into the lives of young people. “Share your wisdom. Share your stories. Tell of life’s joy and happiness, but also share its difficulties, its heartbreak, and its grief. Let them know that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming.” When one gentleman admitted that he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift for the young people in his life to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

After a recent visit to a senior community, a staff member sent an email in which she said, “The residents can’t stop talking about you. You left them with so much joy.”

So I come face-to-face with vocation. I am “the guy who talks about suicide” because the devastating consequences are a powerful wakeup call. I am being called to use my experience to save lives, especially the lives of those who are inexperienced in the pain, heartbreak and challenges of being human. I talk about teen depression and suicide and implore elders to help in the battle to slow the onslaught. When I do, a flame of hope arises with the thought that, maybe, just maybe, there is a vital role for them yet to play. And since hopelessness is rampant in the senior community, and suicide an all-too-frequent visitor, we just might save a few of their lives as well.

Jan 122016
 

Try to get over the narrow idea that surrender is abject defeat. Surrender, in spirituality, is total acceptance.
                                               From the Bhagavad Gita, as translated by Jack Hawley

When he finished playing, we embraced and I told him how he and his music have taught me a great deal about life.

Jeff McLean has filled our house with music many times in the ten years since he and my daughter became friends. Typically, night has overtaken us as he sits gently on the piano bench. He asks if it’s okay to turn down the lights; he prefers to play in near darkness. Within moments, he, the instrument and the music become one. I often wonder if he places his fingers on the keyboard, or if the keys reach upward to find him. In those moments, it seems music, piano, and musician relinquish individual identities and surrender to what is being called from them collectively. Jeff’s hands and fingers move effortlessly, called into position by the music and the instrument that will declare it to the world. The experience often brings tears to my eyes.

I have a sense that if Jeff tried to rein in the music and piano, forcing them to do his bidding—failing to accept the latent invitation into the communal creation—the room would become infused with notes borne of conflict and control, rather than music that emanates from generosity, love and relationship.

We live in a world that would have me believe, with enough effort—more force and control—I can fill the future with music of my own making. I can rein in the world and make it do my bidding. Should I fail to align the world with my vision, it’s solely due to a lack of effort and diligence. Jeff, the music, and the piano invite me to see the world in a new way: divine my path through surrender rather than diligence. In this world, I relinquish my individuality, accept the invitation to be found, and give of myself without reservation. When I find the courage required by surrender, the future arises from generosity, love and relationship…and is infinitely more beautiful than anything I could even imagine on my own.

The world of surrender, for me, is a brave new world…a truly foreign, oft frightening, land. But in a book I read recently, the author suggested, in those moments when life offers comfort or fear, we should choose fear. Comfort confirms that which we already know. Fear offers the possibility of learning and wisdom. My real life exists in that brave new world, so here’s to surrender, fear and courage.

Thank you Jeff for this exquisite lesson.

Jan 082016
 

From the January Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The theme of this issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine is a 50-year vision for the community. In 2008, Batavia rebuilt the William J. Donovan Bridge which spans the Fox River connecting east and west Wilson Street. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my future counterpart, for a time-capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt in the next century:

Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,

It is a challenge to speak to my counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy have been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.

So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.

We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.

Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.

So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. And while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.

I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.

Postscript: Seven years later I see little reason to soften my critique of our culture of isolation. We have hundreds more digital channels into which we can tune and remain observers, rather than participants in human drama. Dialogue is prepared for us, relieving us of the need to find our own genuine, loving, but elusive, words to offer solace and comfort. Then, when lives unfold and we find ourselves in the presence of devastating loss and suffering, we are amateurs at being human. We search for words we learned from script writers, because we cannot discern our own authentic, unique and vulnerable end to the story. We can and must do better…we have 93 years left in which to learn how. I pray we begin today.

Jan 042016
 

Neil Armstrong, on his return from the moon said “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

What if the same were true of human knowledge? What if all human knowledge could, metaphorically, be hidden behind a carefully placed thumb? What if the entirety of human thought is similarly small in relation to the vast innate wisdom that permeates the Universe? What if, in reality, we actually understand very little? What then? What do we do? How should we act, if we must proceed into the next moment with the understanding that we have little understanding? If true, this might be one of the greatest of human paradoxes.

There are, I believe, reasons to question the scope of human knowledge.

The Universe is 14 billion years in the making—the Earth some 4.5 billion—yet we believe we have come close to understanding its deepest secrets in the four or five hundred years since Galileo, Newton and Descartes. On this trajectory, if we complete our understanding in the next two hundred years, or, being conservative, one thousand, what then for the rest of humanity’s future? Will there be nothing for them to ponder about the Universe and how it works?

Even worse, what if our “knowledge” actually drags us further and further from the infinity of the Universe? Is there a possibility our thinking is so mired in orthodoxy we can no longer see beyond the limits of our current beliefs? What if, by insisting we only look through certain lenses, we are becoming more and more blind rather that more and more wise?

Is it possible that 1000 years from now, rather than having used the scientific method to find ultimate answers, we will have set aside that entire belief system as an infinitely constricted lens into the nature of reality? Might we eventually come to understand that any human view of reality will one day be similarly viewed as infinitely constricted? Is it possible we will someday discover that reality is so far beyond any potential human capability we will find our most enduring satisfaction and happiness in the not knowing?

I believe humans will always be in love with the search for the most profound wisdom the Universe is willing to share. So in love, in fact, that even if we discover the deepest wisdom comes from not knowing, we will learn to love the not knowing.