Oct 052018
 

Twice each year, I am invited to speak to the sophomore health classes at Neuqua Valley High School. Recently, the students asked some wonderful questions about working on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK). Here are my reflections.

What do you tell someone who wants to commit suicide?

“Telling” callers anything can often be hurtful. Sentences that end in periods indicate we are not listening. The only thing that helps are sincere questions and deep listening. The only valuable path forward is the one the caller discovers during our conversation. In the end, it is what they tell me that matters.

How many lives do you think you have saved after 15 years?

We never save lives; we share sacred moments when callers choose to save their own. There have been thousands of those moments.

Does the job affect you emotionally?

The work is often emotional. When it is, I try to remain in touch with my emotions and honest with the callers. When I am sad or heartbroken, the caller usually knows, and that helps them know I understand. Most of the stories stay with me, especially those that are heartbreaking, but I am usually successful in not allowing the emotions to follow me home.

Do you ever fail to help callers?

There have been many times when I simply could not find the right words or question to help a caller see their life in a new way. Those calls are some of the most difficult. It makes me sad, but I forgive myself when I am imperfect. I am a volunteer who tries very hard to help every caller. Should a caller choose to end their life after we have talked, I refuse to take responsibility for what was, in the end, their unfortunate decision.

Have you had personal experience with suicide among friends and family?

16 years ago, before I began this work, I did not. In the last 15 years, because of my work in suicide prevention, I have been touched by the tragedy of suicide. I have had to live through the grief and pain with several families. Anyone who thinks no one will miss them when they are gone, has no idea of the devastation left in the wake of their decision to end their life.

How do you know the right thing to say?

We seldom do when the call begins. We begin by listening to the caller’s pain and validating their feelings. During the dialogue, we try to discern what is happening in their lives. Usually, after enough time together, we find questions that cause them to rethink how they see themselves; to reframe their pain and sorrow.

Do you have emergency procedures for someone who is about to end their life?

If a call ends unsuccessfully, meaning the caller is in danger of suicide and hangs up without a resolution, we call 911 and help the emergency responders find the caller and get them to an emergency room.

Is there something you have said in the past that has actually changed someone’s mind?

Everything we do on the line is aimed at inviting callers to see their world in new ways. We don’t change their minds but invite callers to change their own. There have been hundreds of times in which just the right question will help a person see things from a different perspective.

How and why did you get started in this work?

How and why I began is less important than why I am still there 15 years later. Several years ago, a young woman called with a bottle of pills she intended to swallow. After a long and heartfelt conversation, she chose to put the pills away. One of the last things she said to me was “I am thankful you answered my call. If you hadn’t, I’d probably be dead now.” Even many years later those words are etched on my heart, and their memory brings tears to my eyes.

Every human being hopes that, in the end, their lives will have mattered. If I can help another person choose life, I can go to sleep each night feeling immense gratitude.

 

Suicide Prevention Services of America, where I volunteer, is always in need of volunteers to help with their life-affirming work. To find out more, visit SPSAmerica.org or call 630-482-9699

Jul 302018
 

One Christmas afternoon many years ago, I answered a call on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) from a young man in middle school. Through oceans of tears he told me how he and his father argued almost constantly. All he wanted to know was whether his father loved him. It broke my heart. We talked a long time that afternoon until he felt he had a way to talk with his father. One of the last things he told me before the call ended was “I know I don’t know you well, but I can tell you I love you.” One of the most perfect gifts I have ever received on that day.

Having spent nearly 3500 hours answering calls on the Lifeline, I have found that helping those who suffer is some of the most life-affirming work any person can be invited to do. On the other side of suffering is a profundity of joy and wisdom unavailable to us without the journey into the depths.

But to truly affirm life, we must affirm all of life…including suffering. We are bereft of wisdom, empathy and love when we go to great lengths to eliminate or hide suffering; we do everything we can to avoid the journey that eventually leads to an understanding of the true nature of the human journey.

When we hide suffering, we concentrate it in hidden worlds. We send the elderly to retirement and nursing communities; the infirmed and disabled are sent to homes. Depression and mental illness are closeted behind the closed doors of professionals. And while these places are caring and wonderful, those outside forget the suffering behind those doors. By concentrating the anguish into those places of caring, those left to attend to the suffering are overwhelmed by the enormity of what we ask of them.

When suffering is hidden, we are left believing it is not normal for humans to suffer. Those who suffer cry in silence, believing it is their unique frailty or weakness that leaves them in pain. We think, “Since others around me are doing well, it’s just be me who is weak and unable to cope with life.” We miss suffering’s doorway into understanding and sagacity.

I wonder how we might change the world if every person were to find even small ways to allow human suffering to reinfuse our lives. What if we began with the courage to let the world see our own vulnerabilities; bring the reality of the human journey back into our lives and communities. What if each of us spent time in places where we have gathered great suffering and gave a moment of respite to the caregivers who are becoming overwhelmed?

Perhaps, in many of those moments, we will each receive gifts of gratitude and wisdom beyond any we have yet known.

Jul 142018
 

Having completed nearly 67 years of this human journey, I can recount hundreds of gatherings I have summoned into existence. I wonder what, if anything, has been accomplished. In a world heavily dependent on to-do lists and action items, most people believe there is little hope of change unless a gathering concludes with a list of items to be accomplished, with attendant assignments and due dates. If, after six months or a year, we cannot identify and quantify how the world changed, the gathering was clearly a waste of time.

Einstein reminded us that “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” When we set out to change the world with well-worn thinking, the solutions will leave us wanting. If, on the other hand, you change the way a person thinks, they can’t help but act differently. What we can never know is how new thinking will evolve into new actions and ways of being in the world. They are unpredictable and unknowable. Further, since inquisitives continually challenge their thinking, the new ways in which they show up, and actions they take, can never be understood as the result of any one interaction with the Universe.

The human brain is too puny, and the Universe too complex, to even begin to imagine the implications of the things we do. The butterfly effect informs us that small perturbations in initial conditions change the course of history over time and distance in ways that are unknowable and unpredictable. Dee Hock once said, “Every action we take has intended and unintended consequences. The intended ones sometimes happen, the unintended ones always happen!”

Most wisdom traditions echo the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Do your work, then step back.”

In moments when I feel disappointment with the outcome of things I attempt, a friend reminds me my worth is unrelated to the results of my efforts. “Why is it,” she asks again and again, “you cannot know you have value absent of accomplishments?”

I will continue to summon gatherings. I will endeavor to be faithfully inquisitive and open to new ways of understanding the world, and I will invite those who join me to do the same. Then I will attempt, as difficult as it is, to step back and trust in the generative, creative nature of the Universe.

Jun 252018
 

Even at the quantum level, as separate and distinct, a single particle has little value. It is only when they are in relationship to other quantum entities that they form the universe.

So too for humanity. Absent our intimate relationship to all things, we are nothing.

As I write, since I feel my fingers on the keyboard, I imagine the computer and me as separate and distinct. However, if I were to pick up a writing instrument to pen these same words, the experience and result would be different. The computer and I co-create. The world is altered by my relationship to even the most inanimate of objects.

As I trek through the woods, a tree ahead appears distinct from me. I know where my body “ends” and the leaves, branches and trunk “begin.” But do I? There is a symbiotic relationship between us. The oxygen I inhale in this moment was likely “exhaled” by that living organism moments ago. The carbon dioxide I release into the atmosphere is vital to the tree’s future. Each season, a tree will take thousands of gallons of water from the soil and release it into the air as water vapor. Those molecules return to Earth as rain, and to me through the foods I eat and the water I drink. The tree and I are in deep relationship; I am biologically part of that tree, and it a part of me.

Even thoughts originating in my cerebral cortex, which my ego insists make me distinct from others, are proof of relationship not separation. Virtually every neural pathway in my brain has been formed through experience with, and mental formulations that originate in, the world outside of me. Every sound I hear, article I touch, morsel I taste and object I see, alters my relationship with the world and changes the entity I thought myself to be.

My emotional being, as well, is intimately related to, and formed by, the world around me. Every story of pain and heartache I encounter in the lives of friends, or from a call to the suicide hotline, alters my emotional sense of the world.

There is little we own…little for which we can take credit. Every word, every thought, every feeling, emerges from ideas and experiences gifted to us by others. Nor is our ability to hold, synthesize and retell them ours to own. They, too, are gifts we have learned from others.

If I search deeply for the “I” I believe is me, I soon discover there isn’t one. The harder I look, the more intense my gaze, the more I discover that everything I think of as me, was formed through an infinity of relationships. I am nothing more than a confluence of influences—simply the intersection of the fields through which this collection of human cells has traveled. I am, simply put, the result of trillions of quantum particles in relationship.

Western culture moves in harmony with the sacredness and importance of the individual. We go to any lengths, and put many in jeopardy, to save one. But the moment I drift from the sacredness of life to the importance of my own, I excise myself from humanity. I allow myself to become isolated, distinct and apart. My thoughts and ideas are wrenched from their rightful place within the ecosystem where they were formed, and where they can be challenged, debated, refined and potentially discarded. Ego takes over and I elevate my ideas to a place of superiority and rightness.

The Sufi mystic and poet Hafitz once said “I am a hole in the flute through which God’s breath flows.” At best, the confluence of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I refer to as myself is no more than a capacity through which the Universe itself is trying to be seen. If I can remain true to simply being the hole, and refrain from imagining myself to be the breath, or the player of the flute, only then is there hope.

Jun 042018
 

Money separates us from life and devalues humanity.

I recall an exercise used in a philosophy class. “Think of a problem in your life, any problem regardless of its difficulty or seeming intractability. Is there an amount of money that would solve the problem for you?” the professor would ask. Inevitably, students would find some amount to rid them of the struggle, even though the sum would usually allow them to flee the problem rather than solve it.

Today, many live with such wealth, when we face collective problems, it is easier to write a check than roll up our sleeves and get to work. We no longer face the harsh, but very real and essential, nature and wisdom of life. We pay someone else to face it on our behalf, which eases our guilt, but robs us of life’s extraordinary wisdom.

Before humans invented money, everything of value was perishable. Wealth was in the form of livestock and plants that could not be stored, so the fragility of life was apparent every day. If the tribe suffered a setback, the skills and talents of every member were required for survival.

With the advent of money, life became more secure. With its fragile nature at bay, families could survive outside the safety of the tribe. Should a family face a setback, there was a reserve to protect them, at least for a time. The lives of individuals became less important. It was, I fear, a pivotal point in our alienation.

Throughout much of human history male members of the tribe were the hunters. Men were judged not only on their skill, but also the wisdom they showed by carefully taking only what the tribe needed for survival, and nothing more.

When I was young, fathers—most mothers I knew did not work—disappeared every morning into an unknown and frightening jungle and returned with their bounty. Unlike earlier days, when I could take pride in my father’s warrior skill by witnessing his kill and learn the wisdom of non-excess, the bounty he brought home disappeared silently into the vault of some local bank. Excess was celebrated, not avoided. The value of my father’s heroic efforts was stolen from me, and I was taught to genuflect at the altar of excess.

And, what of the efforts of those who volunteer? They trade time, expertise, and wisdom for the satisfaction of knowing they have contributed to the general good? Gross Domestic Product is the measure we use to value human effort in every country in the world. Tell me, where are volunteer hours, and the substantial gains in human society, counted? They are not. When we tally that with which we make global decisions, the labor of those unpaid doesn’t count. This knowledge weighs heavy on my heart since there is little money that flows to my family for much of the work I currently do.

One image of the prophet Mohammad, founder of Islam, is of a man in great emotional pain over the loss of values in his tribe. With the founding of Mecca—a highly successful center for trade and commerce—individual families gathered enough excess wealth to protect themselves. The need to care for the tribe vanished. The poor and infirmed were forgotten. It was wealth, not poverty, that created the gulf between those who have and those who do not and called Mohammad and his founders to a new way.

Even Jesus, is it said, admonished us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I fear that, unless someone calls us to a new way yet again, wealth will eventually destroy us.

May 242018
 

I am dying.

In truth, to the best of my knowledge, I’m a healthy 66-year-old with, I hope, many years ahead. None-the-less, I am dying…and so are you.

Because of cultural biases, I imagine many will find these words deeply disturbing. We resist open discussion of our mortality at great peril. There are, I am told, places where daily meditations on death are encouraged, and those people derive insights and happiness from the practice.

Recently, life encouraged me to think more about death. The week I sat down to write this essay I attended the wake of a friend who died after a fleeting battle with aggressive cancer, I had lunch with another friend who lost his wife of many years after a long fight with COPD, and I was encouraged to read Dying Well: Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life by Ira Byock, M.D. When life sends me a series of such powerful teachers, I prepare for the final exam.

Here’s what I have been reminded. Impermanence and death give life its ultimate meaning.

Suppose someone gave you a magnificent rose; a bloom of such splendor your heart leapt when you first witnessed its beauty. Suppose, in addition, it would never die, nor lose a speck of its glory. How long before your heart no longer even trembled in its presence? A week? Month? Year? Decade? At some point this miracle will have become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance gone. Much of what brings joy and ecstasy to our lives derives from the impermanence of all things.

So too with human life. If we had an infinity of days ahead, soon, the miracle of each new day would become invisible. Its glory will have faded. Its brilliance, too, would be gone.

And yet, we not only deny death, we strive for its opposite: eternal youth. We wish for bodies that never decline in strength and vitality. We are on a continual search for remedies and rituals that eliminate all sources of suffering and sorrow. We struggle to hide anything that reminds us of our mortality. Elders are sent to senior communities. The disabled are cared for in institutions. Every ailment life offers demands immediate remedy. We act as if, by hiding all reminders of old age and mortality, death will forget to tap us on the shoulder.

Reading Byock’s work reminds me of the beauty that can flow from old age and even death. In a heart wrenching moment, Byock is speaking to an elder whose life was defined by community service and is now nearing death in full-time hospice care. After a life of caring for others, the dying man now detests the thought of having to be cared for. Byock reminds him:

The social responsibility you have so well exemplified is not limited to doing things for others. Interactions just like this, caring and being cared for, are the way in which community is created. I believe that community, like the word family, is more of a verb than a noun. Community comes about in the process of caring for those in need among us. It’s unfortunate now that you’re getting to see that side of it, but in allowing yourself to be cared for, and being a willing recipient of care, you’re contributing in a remarkably valuable way to the community. In a real sense, we need to care for you. Not just those of us in hospice, but the community we represent.

The most difficult moments of life, especially as we travel with those who are dying, offer vistas from which to view the astonishing panorama of life, its crescendos as well as its depths. I wonder how much wisdom, compassion, and love we extract from our lives as we attempt to extinguish even the thought of old age, suffering, and death.

Contemplation of my mortality and meditations on death have caused many tears to flow over the past week. But they have gifted me with renewed appreciation for the finitude of the days I have left…and I am even more grateful as each one arrives.

Apr 092018
 

A friend, working his way through my book, Questions that Matter, had just read, and was thinking about, the essay “Patiently Waiting for Me.” In the song “I’m Movin On,” country artists Rascal Flatts sing “Finally I see…life has been patiently waiting for me.” In the essay, I ask if the “me” life is waiting for is someone I have the power to create, as a sculptor fashioning form out of amorphous clay, or someone I was always meant to be, as when curtains are parted to reveal a stunning landscape? In the end, I find the latter metaphor more trustworthy and provocative.

As we talked, he explained his belief; as we live our lives, we discover several things we can do well, then we choose one of those to become.

However, that was not what I was thinking or feeling when I wrote the essay a few years ago. The “me” life is waiting for is not found in the things I do. Life, instead, is patiently waiting for me to find, unlock and live into the essential, deeply authentic person I was sent here to be. Once I discover that essential soul, I can live it into nearly any role I choose.

As we live our life, we spin a thread. That thread is uniquely ours…it has never been spun before…and it will never, ever be spun again. The strength and power of that thread is directly related to our ability and willingness to discover, and live into, our most authentic self.

And what does that mean? It is said that Michelangelo, when asked how he could carve the magnificent statue of David from a block of marble, replied “I chip away everything that does not look like David.” Life, if we live it courageously, is a continual opportunity to chip away everything that does not resemble our truly authentic self.

How is it we chip away that which does not resemble us? A friend once counseled that the community must name our gifts since, due to their innate and intimate nature, they are often invisible to us. That which comes most naturally is easy to deny. “Anyone can do that,” is a normal retort to anyone who holds up a mirror to help us see in ourselves what they see. If we quiet the voice of denial, those who know us and love us—I call them truthtellers—will help us chip away some of that which does not resemble our authentic self.

Beyond that, we learn who we are, and who we are not, when we find the courage to go fearlessly into the world. It will rough us up. It will frequently break our hearts and bring us to tears. The human journey is not easy. Pain and sorrow are difficult, but essential in the discovery of human wisdom. When our hearts break, we learn something more about generosity, kindness, empathy, caring and love. And when we do, more of who we are not falls away and we come closer to what is true and authentic.

For me, many things have fallen away, and essential pieces remain. My grandmother always commented on my willingness to show love and affection. That remains. I cherish my ability to challenge others to see in new ways, and I am, and have always loved being, a teacher. Those are pieces of who I am, not what I do. Those essential fragments, when I find the confidence and courage, are the ground in which everything I do is planted and takes root.

When we discover the magnificence of our life and live that into the world, we realize the thread our life is spinning is golden and priceless. And when we live that thread into the world. we discover, as I have said before in these pages, we have the ability to reweave the very fabric of the Universe.

Feb 112018
 

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Frederick Buechner

No matter how far we have journeyed, and regardless of age, each of us has many miles to go to fully uncover, and live into, our deep gladness. I am often asked how I am enjoying retirement. The word retire derives from the Middle French word retirer which means “to withdraw.” To withdraw from the place God is calling me, or to even slow the journey of discovery, just might be the ultimate blasphemy.

15 years ago, through a series of unanticipated events, I found myself answering calls on a suicide hotline. In the intervening years, my heart has been torn asunder thousands of times, and I have been blessed to be on the phone as callers choose life. In those moments, I can actually feel my deep gladness colliding with the world’s deep need. I frequently have tears in my eyes as proof.

None of us ever knows the full extent of our gifts. I was 51 when I took my first call on the suicide hotline. When I was 49 I had no idea the capacity to help pull people off the ledge was within me. I hope, in whatever years I might have left, there are many more things for me to learn about who I am capable of being.

However, this place to which God calls me can be a joyful but oft difficult and misunderstood place.

Last year I spoke 58 times to more than 2200 people; most of them under the age of 25. I speak about what I have come to know about the human journey, and the value of human life. My goal is to, even in some microscopic way, slow the tragic epidemic of suicide, especially among youth.

But there is little concrete, measurable evidence my efforts changed anything. I have kind words, some thoughtful emails, and a few, very few, dollars in our bank account. Does that matter? It shouldn’t, but we live in a culture driven by quantity, size and extent. My ego was born and raised in this milieu and often demands to be heard…and soothed!

In moments when my ego feels slighted by the meagerness of quantifiable outcomes, I recall ancient wisdom from the Bhagavad Gita: Do your work and let go of results. When we find the place to which God calls us, why can’t that be enough? Why is it important to quantify the world’s great hunger and measure how much I might have lessened it? And, if we only follow paths hewn by quantity, size and extent, do we risk reaching the end of our journey never having unlocked our deep gladness?

So how do we find our deep gladness? First, we need to quiet an ego that demands traditional measures of success. Once relieved of the burden of outcomes, the journey will often lead us to unexpected destinations.

We discover our capacities—our unique magnificence—when we venture into the world and allow it to tell us what makes us unique. Let the world rough you up. Let it break your heart. It will. It will make you cry. But that is how life is meant to be. The human journey is not easy. But when our hearts break, we learn more generosity, kindness, empathy and love. And when we do, the world holds up a mirror to tell us who we are and what we are capable of becoming. In those moments we are given a glimpse into our deep gladness.

Only after we discover a self of extraordinary integrity and authenticity—our deep gladness—can our actions emerge from the fullness of our being and meet the world’s deep hunger. When we discover the magnificence of our life and live it into the world, we literally reweave the fabric of the Universe…and the results will take care of themselves.

Dec 052017
 

How should we understand human suffering?

I received a call from a young man who began the conversation by declaring “I have a gun in my lap and when we finish talking, I intend to use it.” This young man’s life, and sense of self, were defined by exploitation. He had been abused in every way imaginable, and the assaults came at him from all directions. Now, in his early 20s, he felt used and useless…his life had no apparent value. There was nothing left to do but end the anguish.

After we talked for some time, and I began to understand the depth of his desperation and hopelessness, I asked if I could share a story from the Hasidic tradition. He accepted the invitation.

As the story is told, a disciple asked his Rebbe, “Why does the Torah tell us to write the holy words on our hearts, why doesn’t it tell us to write them in our hearts?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s because, as we are, our hearts are closed, so we write them on our hearts and there they stay…until one day our heart breaks and the holy words fall in.”

After recounting that tale, I told the young caller how I wished I could take away his unfathomable pain, but I was helpless to dull even the sharpest of its edges. Knowing his heart had been shattered hundreds of times, I asked if he learned anything about the human journey that would enable him to help others. “Have there been holy words that have fallen into your heart?”

I was stunned by his reply. He told me story after story of his ability to save the lives of other young men who suffer the kind of abuse he experienced; he truly understood the depth of their searing pain. When he finally grasped his incredible capacity for empathy, and his ability to save others, he put the gun away.

When our hearts break, holy words do, indeed, fall in. We learn something important about the nature of the human journey. In moments of heartache and pain, if we are open to the lessons, we gain in our capacity for kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. Our hearts grow in those moments and we are unexpectedly more human, not less. We are broken open, not broken. I have been the beneficiary of the profound wisdom that emanates from human suffering hundreds of times on the suicide hotline.

Yet, we live in a culture that wants us to believe suffering can be made optional, or, if not, at least veiled and secreted away. Anything that reminds us of our mortality, recalls the fragility of our lives, is sequestered. We are flooded with images and products that hint at the prospect of everlasting youth…and an end to suffering. When we do suffer, we wear carefully crafted masks behind which we hide, lest others learn of our weaknesses and failures. Those who find themselves in crises are often deserted by friends who are frightened by the prospects of their own mortality.

We know, at some very deep level, much of humanity’s most profound wisdom has come from individual and collective suffering. I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell taught us the value of the heroes’ journey…the descent into Hades, only to reemerge, imbued with greater humanity and wisdom.

Because we are unpracticed at being in the midst of suffering, it takes effort to overcome our fear. But when we do, our hearts, too, will break, the holy words will fall in, and we will learn even greater kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. It is a difficult, yet essential, part of the human journey. Those moments plant within us essential seeds of human wisdom.