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.

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.

Sep 182017
 

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
                                                Parker Palmer

These provocative words remind me of a question I was asked many years ago…one that haunts me to this very moment. “How do I know that the life I am living is my life.”

The question turns on a deeply philosophical issue: Is this life one of my creation, or is it possible there is an extraordinary life written in the heavens and my task is to discover it—listen carefully for its clues—and then to live into it fully. Not predestination—a life tied to inescapable outcomes—but a life of beauty and meaning available as a gift to be opened and revealed. If it is, how might I unwrap it and bring it naked into the world?

In my years on Earth, I have been given many hints that point to truths about who I am…and some that point me away from my essence. How do we sift the life-giving wheat from the painful, hurtful chaff of life? Perhaps the task is to discover ears that can hear, and eyes that can see, the core of who we are.

When I was in high school, a Christian Brother turned to me unexpectedly one day and said, “Roger, you get along with everyone.” The words pierced me. I wanted to believe them. They were kind and from his heart. But I brushed them off as too beautiful. Even today I find I have many friends, and few people with whom I do not get along.

As a junior in a Catholic high school I was asked to speak at a retreat about the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding life. I spoke of the power of listening and following the call of a higher power. To this day, I still find the most powerful moments in my life are when I am listening for the call of an authority beyond me.

I hated writing essays in high school, but not many years later I had to write essays to accompany my applications to business school. I found myself writing with a passion I had never felt. When the words stopped coming and the paragraphs and thoughts seemed complete I asked two high school English teachers to edit them. I waited with baited breath for their critique. They told me not to change a word! To this day I find that words when words emanate from a deep place I feel most alive…most honest…most like the authentic Roger I am still getting to know.

At her last Snowball weekend retreat, when I thanked her again for asking me to become involved, she looked at me and said “I believe I came here to bring you to Snowball. You are my gift to this organization.”

I am reminded of a prayer. “Oh God, please help me to accept the reality of my life…no matter how beautiful it is.”

Each of us is given many clues as to who you are…or are meant to be. However, we also receive the chaff of life—messages of hurt and distraction. We need to learn how to walk carefully past those and not allow them to claim us. The ones we most need to heed are the ones that pierce us with their authenticity, those that feel true but too close to our heart, ones we wish to deny because of our fear we cannot live fully into them.

When a Christian Brother, retreat leader, truthful teacher, or a child looks me in the eye and says, “This I see in you,” I have been handed a valuable and delicate ribbon. When I tug gently, I begin to unwrap my gifts. Then and only then can I begin to live MY life.

Jun 282016
 

I began as I always do…“Thank you for calling the depression hotline. How can I help?” The young man at the other end sounded disappointed; he had hoped to discuss, not depression, but anger management.

He had just left a store and was sitting in his car, overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing. Moments earlier, he became frustrated in the checkout line. When his frustration got the best of him, he lashed out at a woman, letting loose some hurtful comments. He was deeply disappointed and judging himself unmercifully. “It’s not the person I want to be,” he explained in a voice near tears. What I could hear was his fear that unreasonable, unrestrained anger defined him. “This is the kind of thing I won’t let go of for weeks,” he admitted.

As we talked, I came to understand the complexity and confusion that defined his life. He faced many difficult decisions and emotional battles, yet had no one he could look to for support. He was an only child, his parents were both gone, and his wife simply did not understand. He felt abandoned and very alone. My heart broke for a young man crying out for some measure of comfort.

No one calls the hotline with profound feelings of self-disappointment and failure if they are not molded from a core of kindness, generosity and humanity. I asked if he would wish to be a person who regrets letting himself and the world down, or if he would rather be a person who acts without humanity and simply does not care? “I want to be the person who is deeply sorry,” he said without hesitation. “So, in this moment, you are being exactly the person you hope to be?” He paused and, with a bit of intrigue, admitted he was.

While he did not understand Buddhism in depth, he had been introduced to it when practicing meditation with a friend from Thailand. Reaching back to the Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I asked if he had learned something about himself as a result of losing his temper. “If something similar happens in the future, can you imagine being more gentle, kind and loving in that moment?” “Absolutely,” he said. “So you are a wiser, kinder, and more generous human being than you were even a few moments ago?” I pressed. “It never occurred to me to think of it that way,” he confessed, “but maybe I am.”

“I’m not suggesting you should ever intentionally hurt others in order to gain self-awareness, but, and I hate to break it to you, you are after all, only human. You will likely err again.”

In spite of our wish to always be kind, gentle, generous people, and in spite of our most heroic efforts, each of us will fail to live up to our expectations of self, time and time again. We can use moments of failure to define us as inadequate, horrible human beings, or they can afford unique insights into who we actually are, and who we wish to be. As Abraham Lincoln suggested we can allow ourselves be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”

As my new young friend began to grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom, I could feel the weight of the world lift ever so slightly from his overburdened shoulders. “You’re amazing!” he exclaimed near the end of our time together.

As time has allowed me to reflect, I would wish for one more moment with my young protégé. “First, it is you who is amazing my young friend. I can sense how much you strive for wisdom, goodness and generosity in the face of profound confusion and abject loneliness. Your immense humanity inspires me. Second, I have done little other than share a bit of insight that comes to us through the wisdom of the ages. I am simply thankful for having been able to reach for it when you needed it. Finally, I will not consider myself anything near amazing until I can hear in my own life the voice of self-compassion and love I am asking you to hear in yours.”

As these words appear, I am grateful to have this young man remind me the “better angels of our nature” are always inspiring.

Jun 082016
 

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

I thought it was a small world in 1964, but I had no idea.

When I was 13, the family visited the New York World’s Fair. There is so much I remember: seeing New York City for the first time, standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà (its first trip outside the Vatican), the Unisphere (which was a key backdrop at the end of the movie “Men in Black”), General Motor’s Futurama, Disney’s “Audio-Animatronics” and so much more.

But the experience most deeply etched in my psyche was the ride through Pepsi’s salute to UNICEF and the World’s Children. Created by Disney for the Pepsi pavilion, “It’s a Small World,” subsequently became a permanent ride at all the Disney theme parks. The title song played continuously as we passed hundreds of dolls depicting children from around the world.

The ride, did indeed, make it seem a small world—seeing so many places and cultures in just a few moments. What was beyond anyone’s imagination was the extraordinary way in which the world would actually shrink in the ensuing fifty years.

One Saturday morning not long ago, I received a Facebook message from an old friend who knows of my work in suicide prevention. She expressed concern for a young man writing on social media about ending his life. “I don’t know him personally, but I am connected with him through the Unitarian Church. If he is willing, would you friend him on Facebook and chat?” Within minutes this young man and I were actively messaging. He was open and honest about the difficulties he faced and the reasons for believing there was no reason to go on.

After perhaps an hour of messages instantly traversing the web, I thought it might be easier to talk. It was when I asked if he would call me that the microscopic nature of the planet became palpable. “No problem sir, but sorry to say I can’t call probably since I’m in Pakistan and I hardly afford my cigarettes.”

I stood, mesmerized by the words on my smartphone. I was communicating instantaneously with a young man who lives on the other side of the planet. In the Disney “small world” of 1964, it took several minutes to move from country to country; in this moment it took mere seconds to traverse the globe. A young Pakistani and an aging American found themselves touching each other’s hearts across generations, cultures and thousands of miles. In spite of the abyss defined by age, background, culture and genealogy, the two of us were scarcely separated emotionally, politically, ethically, intellectually, and philosophically. I was touched by his wisdom, insight, generosity and self-perception.

“I am specializing in English Literature but have been a student of comparative religions, philosophical logic, kinesics, parapsychology, metaphysics, ethics and general philosophy. People tell me I’m weird because I read so much. I don’t like stupidity but I encounter it everywhere. Not many people understand me because they are stuck in trivialities like talking on girls, movies, apps, cars, wishes, etc. I find more important things to care about, like, in my country, little children beg in streets. News doesn’t show that. Child labor. Incompetent teachers. People killing people in name of religions. Hatred. Racism. It all drives me mad.”

It is always my hope to help those who feel valueless to find some, even small, measure of self-worth. After we had spent time getting to know one another and building a meaningful relationship, I sent the following message, “The world desperately needs your insight and compassion. I share your sadness regarding the world as it is. For it to become what it must be, we need young people like you. If I can, in some small way, encourage you, and you live to make the world a bit brighter, my life will have meant more.”

“You have.” he replied “To see people like you who believe in selfless unconditional help and care is always inspiring and motivating. Your existence is inspiring me.”

When a young Pakistani can bring tears to the eyes of an aging American across generations, cultures and thousands of miles, it truly is a small world. And I am grateful beyond measure.

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.

Aug 052014
 

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

Frederick Buechner

In an interview with Peter Block many years ago I asked about the nature of our gifts. “We’re blind to our capacities. If you ask people what their strengths are, the list they come up with is pathetic. It’s crude and immature. ‘I’m hard-working…I like people…I’m loyal…I’m a good problem solver.’ Ask them their weaknesses and, oh God, you get poetry. They go on and on like an artist.”

When I announced I was leaving my position as Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, myriad questions arose from friends and colleagues. “Are you retiring?” “What’s next?” “Do you have another job?”

The answers I offered seemed feeble in this culture of plans, to-do lists and 5-year goals. I tried to explain I was not looking for a job, I was in search for my calling…my vocation. I was looking for that place to which God had always called me; a place that was simultaneously unknown and feared.

But how could I find that place? I felt rudderless and lost. I had few models of those who sought that space, unique for each human, where their deep gladness met the world’s great need.

I took comfort and direction from the wisdom I learned from improvisational pianist Michael Jones. The gifts of his music came so easily and naturally, he felt anyone could sit at a keyboard and play. So it is with each of us. When confronted with the truth of our gifts, if we don’t say it out loud, there is that internal voice of denial. “It’s no big deal. Anyone could do that,” we hear ourselves proclaiming. We assume the person speaking is just being polite because what they see in us is nothing special.

If I have wealth, it emanates from the love and care so many have shown me. After years running the fireworks, honoring the victims of September 11, exploring the fissures that so often separate us and showing up with authenticity and vulnerability, I have many truth-tellers in my life. I set out to find those who knew me well and would speak with honesty. I approached, told them the story of Michael Jones and explained how difficult it is for each of us to see our own unique gifts. Everyone understood the depth and meaning of that message. Then I asked if they would tell me what they saw in me that I was unable, or unwilling, to see in myself.

Being vulnerable in public does not take nearly the courage it takes to be vulnerable with ourselves. When I sit with a person who knows and cares about me—a truth-teller—I have to quiet the voice that wishes to deny; the one that screams “NO! Don’t you understand, what you think you see in me see is no big deal. Anyone could do that.” To deny what they see is to disrespect a person who, in love and generosity, is offering the greatest gift they can—a mirror into my own heart and soul. To deny is, perhaps, to disrespect the very voice of God.

One of the most telling phrases came from a woman who I helped as she struggled to start a small business. As I told her the tale of Michael Jones and asked if she would reflect on what she saw in me, she stopped me mid-sentence, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’ll tell you now. You listen and then you speak. I know because that is what you did for me.”

So in honor of all those who so generously spoke of my gifts, here is what I heard. I do listen to the world broadly. I listen to the stories and wisdom of the thousands of people who have reached out on the suicide hotline. I have listened through the wisdom of the hundreds of authors who have so generously gifted us with their perspectives. I have listened to the yearnings of members of my community who long for their stories to be heard. I have listened to hundreds of teens in Operation Snowball who struggle to find their identity and place in the world. I have listened to my heart as I try to make sense of the cacophony I often experience in the world.

Then, as I listen, I draw what I have heard into the experience that is my life, and through my own sense of truth, and speak to the world in the nuances that come through me. I try to honor those who tell me I have a gift to say what they have felt, but been unable to put into words.

And, with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, quieting that voice of denial, I believe I do these things well.

May 072014
 

Note: The Following was published in January 2011 in Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I recently realized it never made it to my blog.

As I approach 60, the moment of turning the calendar from one year to the next gives me pause. I wonder if I will have left a legacy. Will I have helped moved humanity forward, or might my life have been, as a dear friend once fretted, a throw-away line? I ponder the best way to spend the 365 days I gently step into on January 1.

In those moments, an image painted by Hendrik Willem van Loon in his wonderful book, The Story of Mankind, comes to mind:

High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.
We live under the shadow of a gigantic question mark.
Who are we? Where do we come from? Whither are we bound?
Slowly, but with persistent courage, we have been pushing this question mark further and further towards that distant line, beyond the horizon, where we hope to find our answer.
We have not gone very far.”

I find this image of a single day of eternity compelling. In the face of an eternity this unimaginable, I feel small and insignificant.

I recall standing in the presence of the Giant Sequoias in California and marveling that many have lived thousands of years. Many were alive through the entirety of the Current Era. They lived through the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages and the rise and fall of the Divine Right of Kings. To them, the ink on our Declaration of Independence has yet to dry. American representative governance, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War happened moments ago. And yet, even to them, van Loon’s “single day of eternity” is unimaginable.

Then I imagine living the life of a mayfly—often a single day. As you begin to mature by mid-morning, you wonder about the species’ evolution. You see so many ways in which it falls short of the enlightened state of which you dream. By midday you are working tirelessly for the betterment of your fellow mayflies. Within hours, as you age, you become distraught because, in spite of your lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between you and those with which you compete for resources. You wonder if there is any hope for the future. I imagine that species is awed that a human such as myself has witnessed tens of thousands of their generations.

We might witness the mayfly and smile. How silly to imagine, that in such a short lifetime, an insect could hope to actually witness evolution! Then I wonder if the Sequoia looks at us with the same mix of wonder, whimsy and pity.

And yet, as humans, we live with the hubris to imagine that in our lifetime, or certainly within a few generations, we will experience the advancement of our species into something significantly new and wonderful. Not only do we expect to have witnessed advances in evolution, we believe we will have personally contributed to forward movement so significant we can actually witness growth. Then, as we age, we become distraught because, in spite of a lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between us and those with whom we compete for resources. We wonder if there is any hope for the future.

If it is naive to expect my life will make a noticeable difference in the course of human history, what then? How should I decide what to do, how shall I spend the moments I am given in the year ahead?

One answer to that question, and there are many, rests in the flapping of the wings of butterflies. The Butterfly Effect tells us that a minute air disturbance in one part of the world can, through a complex and unpredictable chain of events, foster a tornado halfway around the globe. And the butterfly that set the future in motion has no idea of its impact thousands of miles away and months or years later.

The future unfolds based on “initial conditions.” An infinitesimally small change in this moment, can, as a “single day of eternity” transpires, allow an entirely new, dramatically different future to blossom.

So what I think about, as I step into the 365 days that begin on the first of January, is what initial conditions am I creating in this moment? Is the wisp of air I am disturbing filled with joy, kindness and generosity, or anger and hate? Am I aware of the pain and heartache in the face of the stranger next to me, or am I focused on me and my needs? What can I do in this moment to give the future the very best foundation on which to begin its next “day of eternity”? My stay on this Earth is far too short to witness the impact of the initial conditions I set, so all I can do is have faith that the future will best be served if I serve this moment in the most loving and attentive way I can.

So for me, life is a constant struggle to meet, and negotiate with, each and every moment. As I approach the next, I hope to serve it the best I can as I inhabit it, and it inhabits me. And then, perhaps, I must simply trust that the “single day of eternity” that that moment and I become part of will take care of itself.