rebproject

Apr 022020
 

The woman on the other end of the call tried desperately to speak through anxiety and a torrent of tears. “Take a deep breath.” I said, “I want to understand what you are facing.”

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m confused. My life is falling apart. I tried to call my therapist, but her mailbox is full, so I can’t even leave a message. I don’t know what to do.” The tears and anxiety returned.

“Why are you feeling so overwhelmed?” I asked. Trying to hold back tears, she replied, “This virus has turned my world upside down. I have two young children and I have to be everything: mom, teacher, cook, housekeeper. I’m drowning. I try to do it all, but I can’t. I feel like a total failure. There isn’t even any time during the day to care for myself.”

I continued, “First, I am in awe of your herculean efforts to try to do everything.” “Thank you,” she replied, “That’s really nice to hear.”

 “In addition to attempting everything, are you expecting perfection?” I asked, suspecting the answer. “Of course. I take pride in doing things well, and right now, I’m failing at everything,” she said through a renewed wave of tears. “So, in addition to not checking everything off your list, you’re piling on guilt for not being perfect.” “Yes,” she responded quietly.

 “Can we agree that these are extraordinary times, and that nothing is what it was a few weeks ago? These times demand that each of us discover new ways to be in the world. What would it take for you to accept you can no longer be perfect in everything, and be gentle with yourself for the imperfections?” She said it would be difficult.

“I understand, but here’s a thought. It’s the end of March. What would happen if you picked a date, say June 1, and decided to quarantine your judgements and guilt until then? What if, for the next two months, you decided, since life is crazy, imperfection is what is needed. You can go back to being perfect after June 1, if you so choose. But for now, can it be okay to be imperfect? If there are dishes in the sink, it’s fine…clothes to be washed, oh well…beds aren’t made, so be it…every school assignment isn’t finished, pick it up again tomorrow. Could you quarantine the judgements for 60 days and be kind and gentle with yourself?” After a short pause, she said “I think I could, but it would be hard.” I reminded her everything is difficult right now.

I asked, of all the things not getting done, what hurts the most. “With all the other things I feel I have to do, I’m forgetting to be Mom. My children need that more than anything and it’s last on the list.” “So,” I pressed, “if you let other things be imperfect, do you think you might find time each day to play with your children? Just have fun?” In a truly joyful voice, she said it sounded wonderful.

In the end, she told me she marked June 1 on her calendar and was putting everything aside that afternoon to spend time being the Mom her children need. Then she said, “Can it be okay to be imperfect in other things so I can be a good Mom? Absolutely!” Suddenly, it was me in tears.

Mar 182020
 

“I’m done. I can’t take it any longer.” she said. “I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a child and I simply cannot do it any longer.” I struggled to find words to help, and I told her so. In the midst of our conversation, she told me her psychologist believed every person has a purpose. “Once I find mine, she thinks I’ll feel better. But what if I don’t believe every person has a purpose?” I admitted I wasn’t sure that was true either. “But here’s what I do believe. Each of us can gently nudge the world every day. Everything we do, every moment we help another human or improve the environment, nudges the world ever so gently in a minute new direction. Hundreds of times each day; millions in our lifetimes. And, if you believe in the Butterfly Effect, some of those gentle nudges will change the course of human history.”

She interrupted. “That was it.” Fearing I might have said something to push her over the edge, I confessed my confusion. “What do you mean?” I asked. “A few moments ago, you admitted you were struggling to find words to help. Well, that was it. When I called, I was determined to self-harm. Now, I won’t.”

That is one of more than ten thousand calls I have answered on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I am often stunned by the unique path each call carves, into the world and into my heart. In ten thousand conversations, I had never used those words. Why, I wonder, was I given them in that moment?

I have reflected on them frequently since that moment of meeting. Perhaps, they were not only for her, but for me as well. Having long sought a deeper understanding of my own life and its meaning, those words speak to me. They tell of the value of many small deeds—nudges, if you will—done every day. In those moments when I rue not having done something “big” with my life, these words console me. To echo the caller, perhaps that is it.

A war rages within, that pits a plethora of culturally held beliefs against a deep sense they may be inherently at odds with who we need to be as members of this fragile biosphere. The older I get, the more at odds I feel with the milieu in which I carve my own path. One of the most deeply troubling cultural convictions is the belief that a human life is valuable if it contains a “big” accomplishment. The bigger the impact on humanity, the more valuable the life. We celebrate that belief every day in newspaper stories, magazine covers, and narratives that go viral on social media.

What if a life is valuable regardless of the size of our “accomplishments”? What if it is valuable simply because the one who lived it, nudged the world in many, many positive ways? What if the “size” of one’s accomplishments have nothing to do with our insidious ways of measuring and evaluating a person’s life? And, since I often list my title as “Speaker Provocateur,” allow me to be provocative. What if nudging the world is all we should ever attempt to do?

Feb 032020
 

I am fascinated how often people battered by life, acknowledge that, despite the harshness of the journey, it bore gifts they hope never to relinquish.

I was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago, but it’s severity, and need to deal with it, only became clear in early 2019. In the months since the cancer’s gravity was confirmed, I too, will admit to many gifts born from the ensuing journey. I feel as though I won the lottery, not by beating cancer, but by having been given it.

In traditional lottery terms, I have a sense I beat the odds. My cancer was first discovered through a biopsy several years ago, but it was not considered life-threatening. Anyone familiar with prostate cancer knows many types progress slowly, so “watch and wait” is an appropriate path forward. However, a second biopsy in early 2019 confirmed the cancer had become more acute requiring some more-proactive protocol. How did I beat the odds? After surgery, the pathology report exposed cancer in only 0.1% of my prostate. The odds of finding it in one biopsy is 1 in 125. The odds of finding it in two, is 1 in 15,625. Had my urologist missed it, I would still be “watching and waiting” as the disease increasingly threatened my life.

But my deepest joys erupt, not from mathematical odds, but from the human voyage on which I embarked.

There are several protocols to deal with the cancer I confronted. My urologist in Geneva, when the cancer was first discovered, recommended I get a second opinion from Dr. Edward Schaeffer, Head of Urology at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. Putting ego aside, he said “Schaeffer is the guy in this field. As far as I am concerned, whatever he says goes.” The first time I met Dr. Schaeffer, he extended his hand and said, “Hello, I’m Ted.” This world-class physician put formality aside, identified himself with his nickname rather than title, and provided his cell phone number! He made it clear I was to call him directly should any questions arise. Ted Schaeffer put me at ease from the first moment we met. Throughout the journey, he called personally to discuss each development and its implications.

One option, which, in the end I rejected, was radiation. Nonetheless, Dr. Schaeffer, a surgeon, encouraged me to fully explore those alternatives. I met with a radiologist at the Northwestern Proton Center in Warrenville who spent an hour going over every aspect of radiation, exactly what would happen, how they would protect the other vital organs, and even the ramifications, including potential long-term collateral damage. I was astounded by the depth and breadth of his explanations, as well as his authenticity and genuine concern.

I feel blessed by the humanity and humility of each of these physicians. Each, a lottery ticket pulled in my favor.

A week before my surgery, one final “procedure” came to mind that made the journey even more joyful. As I walked one morning along the Fox River, I was leveled by the realization no one’s future is guaranteed the moment major surgery commences. I was suddenly terrified that, should something untoward happen, those closest to me might never know the depth of my love. Over the next few days I wrote twelve letters—one to my wife, to each of my children, my mother, my four siblings and their spouses. It was during this excursion I realized how I had won life’s lottery in an astonishing way. Every letter wrote itself. I was able to tell each person of my love and respect, and of the joy, laughter, and deep meaning they each bring to my life.

In the lottery of life, I have been reminded yet again, I am one of the luckiest, and wealthiest, people I know.

Roger Breisch

Dec 052019
 

At first, it ended tragically.

At a recent Operation Snowball* retreat, the teens wrote a skit entitled “Asking for Help.” In the first performance, one of the teens was struggling mightily with challenges life mercilessly hurled in her path. Despite her overwhelming heartbreak and pain, she never asked for help. Those around her, even if they noticed, did little in response to her subtle cries for love and support. Alone and confused, without the comfort of family and friends, her life ended in tragedy.

I was asked to facilitate the ensuing discussion, so I rose and asked the eighty or so teens what went wrong. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired. They knew she needed help and were saddened that those around her let her down. The failure brought some in the room to tears.

We talked about the many ways we can pick up on a cry for help. Obviously, when friends tell us they are in trouble, it’s easy. But often, cries are silent and subtle. “If we see unexpected changes in mood, it would be important to reach out,” one teen suggested. Another counseled “If a friend’s habits change unexpectedly, it is never a mistake to ask if they are okay.” I reminded them, even if we see a stranger who appears to be sad, we can always offer assistance or just a smile. “Remember, when someone needs support, you are not responsible to solve their problems. You only have to help get them to someone who can.”

The actors replayed the final moments of the skit. But this time, the struggling teen’s friends picked up on her sadness and anxiety and insisted she come with them to get help. That version was truly lifesaving.

As we discussed the second performance, we agreed it is difficult to ask for help, especially for teens. We recounted many reasons. “I’m the strong one. If my friends and family find out I am struggling…they’d be disappointed.” “My father is out of work and we have no insurance.” “I don’t want to be a burden on others.” “My parents are under a lot of stress because my uncle is dying from cancer.” “My sister is already in counseling. I can’t tell my parents I need it too.” “My mother is a single parent. She is stressed enough already.” The list is endless.

But then, one teen spoke up. “I think many people, especially teens, don’t ask for help because they don’t think they deserve it.” That nearly brought me to my knees.

An hour before the session began, as I reflected on the upcoming events, I recalled a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier. He asked if I believed in fairness. The question was startling, nevertheless, I assured him I did. “If you were at a dinner and the dessert tray had only two pieces of the pie you wanted, and one was clearly larger that the other, which would you take?” Since the question didn’t require deep contemplation. I told him I’d likely take the smaller one. “Always?” he pressed. This time I thought, but only for a moment. “Yes, probably.” “Ah,” he shot back, “then you really don’t believe in fairness, do you?”

I repeated that ancient exchange to the students and adults in front of me. I then recounted the many reasons we don’t ask for help. Is it possible, I asked, that, when life is dispensing love and support, we’re too willing to give others the larger slice? “It’s unreasonable,” I acknowledged, “to always be first in line, but, if we continually put ourselves last, perhaps we really don’t believe in fairness.”

We tell ourselves it is better to give than to receive. I believe that. But, if we believe in offering love, kindness, and generosity to all humans, then doesn’t the person we see every morning in the mirror, deserve to receive an equal share from us as well?

*Operation Snowball is a teen leadership program for which I am an adult volunteer.

Nov 222019
 

Resource Curse. It’s the plague wrought upon the planet when a person, company, institution or government finds themselves awash in inconceivable wealth.

In Blowout, Rachel Maddow’s comprehensive, forthright, and beautifully written examination of the oil and gas industries, we learn of the curse rained down upon our species as a result of billions of dollars concentrated in the hands of small numbers of individuals. We have selfishly stolen this wealth from Mother Earth—stored for hundreds of millions of years and limited in quantity—for our insatiable and gluttonous consumption.

This capacious wealth, coming out of the ground in torrents, brings out the ugliest aspects of our humanity. Corruption, tyranny, murder, exploitation, and all other forms of inhumanity, explode from the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Countries with the greatest influx of fossil fuel income, because of rampant corruption, often end up with tremendous poverty, horrendous environmental problems, impoverished educational systems, increased infant mortality, reduced life spans, and poorer quality of life.

It is frightening to understand what humans are capable of in the face of unimaginable wealth. What is most frightening is that I don’t believe this is the result of money finding its way into the pockets of a few corrupt individuals. While there are examples of people with enormous wealth who use it for good, I fear resources of this magnitude could easily corrupt most people if it found its way into their pockets. I fear even I would lose my sense of self in the face of hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars suddenly at my disposal.

In the end, the wealth that literally erupts from the earth, has given humanity the ability to alter the environment to the detriment of millions of other species; likely even our own. I wonder if ours is an aberrant species, so destructive of the magnificent biosphere to which we were heirs, that God is in tears?

Oct 232019
 

I often feel guilty for not being more present in the exploding world of blogs, podcasts, and videos. I spend too little time, it feels, listening to others, and precious little time creating personal content. A voice, demanding I change my errant ways, screams from all directions. “You need to write every day.” “Only those who create content with regularity command an audience.” “Why are you withholding all that you know from others?” When I listen to this voice, I judge myself harshly for being lazy and lacking dedication.

But there is a softer, more timid voice I hear when I listen carefully, and quiet the voice of condemnation. That voice fears that a forced dedication to creating and publishing would simply unleash yet more clatter in a world already overwhelmed by tumult. It asks, “does the world need more noise?”

A group of professionals unknowingly forced me to step into this war of emotions and mediate a cease-fire. They asked me to address the topic of how and when to speak. I was horrified. There are thousands of books, articles, blogs, videos and podcasts on the topic. I am certain I have nothing to add to that chorus of oft-conflicting voices. Anything I might suggest, I felt, would add, not wisdom, but noise.

After hours of denial and reflection, a moment of inspiration arrived from some unknowable place. I began to consider what might emerge if I addressed the topic of how and when to remain silent. Perhaps then, we might find a more compelling place from which to speak.

When the group gathered, I asked how many shared my guilt for not spending more time perusing the online world of thoughts, opinions, and ideas. The nearly unanimous chorus was comforting. Then I asked, “When you do find time, how much of what you experience fundamentally changes your ways of seeing the world—fills you with awe—and how much simply reiterates, rearranges, or regurgitates ideas you already know?” An informal poll indicated that most felt little more than 5% filled them with awe. I suggested we refer to that small percent as “awe-full” and the rest as noise.

So, how might we restrict our words to the 5% that fills others with awe? How do we find and speak to wisdom, and silence the noise? Hidden deeply beneath the question “What and how to speak?” lies the question “When to remain silent?”

The 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz once wrote, “I am a hole in the flute through which God’s breath flows.”

How might we be different in the world if we were to think of ourselves, not as the flute nor the breath, but simply as the hole? What if we were to remain silent, in thought and deed, until what was coming through us was nothing less than the breath of God?

You needn’t believe in God to be moved by this thought. Regardless of your faith, or lack thereof, most of us understand we are an infinitesimal piece of an inexplicable mystery known as the Universe. What if, in our smallness, we were to think about what it would mean to allow the mystery of the Universe to flow through us?

For me, the most powerful messages I ever discover are those I listen deeply to hear. Not what comes from me, but is aching to come through me. In my most awe-filled moments, I realized the confluence of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I refer to as myself are no more than a capacity through which the Universe itself is trying to be seen and heard. If I can remain true to simply being the hole, and refrain from imagining myself to be the breath or the flute, only then is there hope.

In the end, when we find enough silence so that which moves through us is the breath of God, it will do its work in the world, despite our inability to deliver it with perfection.

Oct 042019
 

Note: The following will be published in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The morning of September 12, the world of Neighbors magazines was torn apart. Kate Sullivan, who, with her husband Tim, published Neighbors of Batavia magazine, was ripped from our lives. The vision they shared—helping communities discover their heart and soul—has had a profound impact on Batavia. A colleague, who new Kate well, observed that she never made friends, she simply expanded her family. We will all miss her greatly.

In the last issue of Neighbors of Batavia, based on Bill McKibben’s insights in his recent book, Falter, I touched on three trends—environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering—each of which will dramatically alter our future. (This essay is also a recent blog entitled “Opening Door and Windows – Part 1)

In that essay, I suggested that if we were in a burning building, and the occupants were in denial, we could open doors and windows so, upon realization of the fire, people could escape. What might it mean, I asked, to “open doors and windows” in our communities, so we might escape the approaching unintended consequences? Upon reflection, I realize that metaphor fails. As opposed to a burning building, what if there is no escape as heat begins to scorch our souls?

I am reminded of a long-ago moment as I ascended an ancient volcano that now forms a portion of the island of Oahu. In Hawai’i, little land is wasted when hillsides are transformed into neighborhoods. Narrow stretches of parched, red dirt, punctuated by occasional tufts of dry grass, are often all that separate homes from roadways. As streets wind their way up the mountainside, there is typically little safety for a lone pedestrian, with cars flying by on their way to who-knows-where.

One afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman tending to the small patch of earth that separated his home from the rest of the world. His was garden-green and lined with a row of delicate flowers—a small, yet beautiful, oasis. I walked the opposite curb so as not to trample his creation.

As I approached, he looked up with a smile, pointed to his “lawn” and said, “Please walk here…it’s safer.” To this kindly gentleman, a stranger’s safety was more important than the stretch of nature to which he tended so carefully.

Of the effects sure to erupt from our creations, the most devastating will likely be massive human dislocation. Environmental disruption will force millions to flee ancestral homes and search for livelihoods in distant lands. Artificial Intelligence will decimate traditional careers and throw additional millions onto the street in search of new ways to feed their families. When terrified neighbors, or fragile families from distant lands, find their way to my doorstep, what then? Should I fear for my soul if I someday choose my needs over theirs; if my own terror overwhelms my obligation to clothe the naked and feed the poor?

In those moments, what would it mean, for me to turn to strangers in need, look them in the eye and say, “Please walk here…it’s safer”? What am I prepared to give up in order to protect the humanity of another? How much should I be expected to give? As I face such heart-wrenching decisions, how courageous and vulnerable am I willing to be?

As this war rages inside me, pitting me and my safety against my yearning to help others, I am reminded of the wisdom given to us by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish tradition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions tear at me.

Then, as I recall recent events, I realize I needn’t rely on ancient wisdom. Guidance is close at hand—the path illumined by the life of Kate Sullivan. Perhaps I needn’t help neighbors or those from distant lands. In those moments, I simply need to expand my family.

Aug 052019
 

Fair warning. For those who look to these posts for comfort and reconciliation, this piece is likely an exception.

Several recent books and conversations emboldened me to peer some distance into the future. The vista is, at best, sobering.

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who has been writing about global warming for more than 30 years, recently published his latest volume: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? In it, McKibben expands his perspective by examining not just the environment, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

A friend once cautioned, in every human endeavor, intended consequences sometimes happen; unintended consequences always happen. The consequences we intend for artificial intelligence are more efficient decision making, less repetitive work, greater safety, and lower costs to produce the necessities of life. However, did you know the most common job description in the United States today is “driver?” What happens when autonomous vehicles force millions who call themselves drivers to find new sources of income? How many of our neighbors will suddenly struggle to pay their bills?

Genetic engineering could force us to abandon everything we know about what it means to be human. While “germline” genetic engineering—altering heritable human traits—remains illegal globally, should it someday become acceptable, we could begin to design our children. Since only the wealthy will have that capacity, McKibben wonders if we might end up with two classes of humanity: the wealthy who have been designed to excel in every facet of being human, and the rest who become second class.

Similarly, environmental challenges could force tens of millions across the globe to abandon coastal areas and leave farmland suddenly incapable of supporting crops. If that should happen, people flocking to the U.S. southern border might number in the millions per month rather than a hundred thousand. What then? If U.S. coastal regions become uninhabitable, where will those millions go. My niece, who works on environmental issues, suggested the upper Midwest will become an attractive destination. What happens if Batavia suddenly finds thousands at its “southern border” seeking refuge?

I recommend McKibben’s work, with a substantial caveat. He suggests a “solution,” but it’s easier for me to believe in fairy dust. A wise gambler, he submits, after winning a comfortable amount in a casino, will walk away; she has enough for a comfortable future and is satisfied. McKibben suggests humanity has had a good run at the casino we call Mother Earth. We have won a great deal; enough, if properly distributed, to provide a comfortable life for the species. It’s time, he suggests, we walk away and be satisfied with our winnings. No further environmental damage, and a halt to development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

If that’s the best hope for our salvation, please pass the fairy dust.

I was discussing McKibben’s views with some intelligent, astute friends. “Certainly,” they assured me, “someone will figure each of these things out.” It reminds me just how many people have their heads in the sand. They profess an understanding of potential disruptions, but, in the end, are in denial that any will substantially impact their lives.

So, what to do in the face of those who are in denial? Many years ago, an author asked what you might do if you were in a building you knew to be on fire, while other occupants were in denial. You could, she suggested, run around yelling “FIRE!” However, you would likely be labeled a crackpot. Alternatively, you could open the doors and windows, so when others are convinced of the danger, they can find their way out.

In the years since that metaphor was revealed to me, I have wondered what it might mean in our communities to “open the doors and windows” so, when our neighbors become convinced of coming disruptions, they can find their way out. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’ll have some thoughts in a future post.

Jun 072019
 

“You are truly a gentleman,” I told him. Later, I began to wonder if it had been a mistake.

It was early morning on the final day of a recent trip to Ireland. I had just finished a session on the treadmill in the hotel’s fitness center and was returning to our room. To my delight, as I wandered through the lobby, I discovered a small stand offering complimentary coffee; for me, the perfect end to a morning workout. As the steaming beverage filled my cup, a smartly dressed hotel employee adorned with a cheerful smile strode over to wish me a good morning. When I thanked him for the coffee, his smile broadened, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I make sure our guests get fresh, hot coffee every morning.” I was taken by his sincerity and intimacy. It was at that moment I made the mistake of telling him he was a gentleman.

It is easy to confine a human being with a careless, poorly considered word. Not long ago, I had a long conversation with a young woman who was imprisoned by the word “worthless,” the moniker her parents inscribed on her psyche throughout her childhood. “Nothing I ever did was good enough,” she explained, fighting back tears. It broke my heart to hear this bright, articulate, caring young woman tell me over and over how, even in those moments when she knew in her heart-of-hearts she was kind, generous, hard-working and determined, she could not shake the feeling she had not a shred of true worth.

But isn’t it different to use a description like “gentleman” that conjures images of generosity, care and nobility? How could that possibly confine or imprison a person?

When I turned a kind, early morning gesture of a hotel employee into a description of him as a human being, I imprisoned him. No human being is perfect…there are moments in every life during which we fail to live up to the high standards to which we ascribe. No doubt, there will be moments in which he fails to live into what it means to be a gentleman. In those moments of self-disappointment, I imagine him looking in a mirror and thinking, “That guest who told me I was a gentleman, was so very wrong. I am nothing of the kind.”

A moniker is a title we either accept or reject, and, due to our imperfections, even the kindest, most lovingly offered labels can end up on the rubbish heap of our lives.

In a book I read recently, the author advocates for unconditional self-acceptance. We should always endeavor to exceed high standards and celebrate those moments in which we do. But, can we learn to be gentle with ourselves when we inevitably fail to live into the person we hope to be? Can we recall our worth even when we misstep?

Whenever we encounter a moment of grace with another person, might we comment on what was achieved, and refrain from turning a kind gesture, moment of brilliance, or extraordinary accomplishment, into a confining description of a person’s humanity? I wish I could return to my encounter with a truly wonderful human being in a hotel lobby in Dublin. I would, instead of commenting on the entirety of his humanity, have simply commented on his act of kindness and generosity. Thanked him for the way in which his manner, brilliant smile and words, made me feel as though I was the most important person in his life; at that moment, I believe I was. Then, at some future time, should he fail to live up to his high standards, he will always be able to recall an early morning encounter in which he succeeded…and celebrate.

Mar 232019
 

When grace enters my life unexpectedly, the moment often becomes a font of knowledge and wisdom.

Operation Snowball is an organization for high school students who want to live healthy lives by keeping an informed and respectable distance between themselves and drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Twice each year a three-day retreat is convened for a hundred or more participants. I recently had the privilege of participating in my 26th such weekend.

The keynote speaker Friday afternoon was newly elected Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain. I have heard the Sheriff speak and I am inspired by his leading-edge ideas and philosophies related to law enforcement. On that day, however, I had no expectation of inspiration, just thoughts about teens, drugs and alcohol.

However, Sheriff Hain prefaced his remarks by retelling his journey from a young boy of twelve to Sheriff of Kane County. You see, and he admitted it was the first time he told this story in a very public venue, when he was 12, his father walked out on him and his mother. In that moment, as they cried, he realized the imminent choice that would chart the course of his life. He could, he told us, be destroyed by the abandonment, or use it as a lever to propel him forward toward a life of meaning. Thankfully for all of us, he chose the latter. From that moment forward, every significant decision he faced became another chance to prove, to himself and the world, he would use his time on this planet to make a difference.

Sheriff Hain did speak of drugs, alcohol, and law enforcement, and, following his remarks, there were many questions from the teens about a life in criminal justice. But the questions that most caused the Sheriff to pause, were those about what it meant for his father to abandon him and his mother.

I have long thought about the pain in our lives and who we might become with or without it. With this unique opportunity right in our midst, I raised my hand and asked, “Sheriff, if you could, would you go back to that moment when you were 12 and re-write history? Would you write a story in which your father remained in your life?” He paused for a long moment, then he looked at the 100 of us in the room and admitted that that moment made him who he became. He then said, “As strange as it may seem, that event was a gift in my life, and I would not go back and change it.”

I think many in the room were stunned by that revelation, but I was overcome with joy. Not joy over his father’s departure, but joy for the gift the Sheriff had just bestowed. Over the past 13 years in Snowball, I have heard hundreds of stories from teens who live through horrendous pain. There were many in the room that Friday afternoon who had lived through moments as painful as the Sheriff; some are living lives even more raw and chaotic. I thanked him for helping us understand that those moments, as horrible and as unfair as they are, can become defining moments in our lives. Those moments can overwhelm us…they can also propel us.

It is a story I have heard thousands of times answering calls on the National Lifeline. Often, after witnessing a human being in inordinate pain, I will ask, “While I would take this suffering away in an instant if I could, I cannot. However, are you learning something about what it means to be human that you can use to help others?” Often, the response is “You have no idea.”

Sheriff Hain, your ideas about law enforcement inspire me, but this past weekend I was moved by your strength and humanity. The gift from your life, became one in ours. I am deeply grateful for you giving us that unexpected moment of grace.