Oct 252016
 

Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a future we will not see.” When I ask elders if they believe they can change the course of human history, many believe they cannot. I believe they can.

At a recent speaking engagement, an elderly gentleman—heavyset, gruff and wearing a baseball cap—pulled me aside. As tears welled up, he told me his grandson had recently ended his own life. Looking forlornly at the floor he continued, “I never saw it coming.” The unspoken words written unequivocally on his face asked “How could a grandfather not see that in his grandson?”

I speak to many seniors because the young people they know and love—grandchildren, great grandchildren, grand nieces and nephews, and others—are at risk. Between the ages of 15 and 24, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. The question I am most often asked is “Why?”

There are myriad answers, but a serious and dangerous trend, I believe, is the disconnect that often exists between those I call life’s apprentices and its masters. In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, but they learned wisdom from their grandparents. The elders told the stories of the tribe, and through those stories they passed along the ideals, principles and values held most sacred. Today, we too often lock away the wisdom of our elders behind the iron gates of retirement communities. As one woman told me, “now that my family is assured I am safe, cared for and comfortable, they don’t come to see me anymore.”

My plea to elders—to you, our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that you constantly look for ways to gently and generously touch the lives and hearts of young people. Share your wisdom. Share your stories. Tell of life’s joy and happiness, but also share its difficulties, its heartbreak, and its grief. Remind our youth that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming. When one gentleman admitted he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

In an era of decreasing interpersonal connection and increasing focus on screens and technology, the eldest among us know better than most the power of compassionate conversation. After spending thousands of hours counseling teens in leadership forums and on a depression/suicide hotline, I know how much influence seniors can have on future generations. There can be a special relationship between our oldest and youngest generations—one that can energize, heal and inspire.

As Neil Postman suggests, every time we alter the life of a young person, a piece of us lives through them to generations yet unborn…and the course of human history is forever altered.

Sep 012016
 

I’m just trying to save lives, but I’m handcuffed. It breaks my heart, and leaves me feeling set aside.

Youth suicide is epidemic, often the second leading cause of death for those between 15 and 24. No one understands why, and there are many valuable efforts to curb the onslaught. But what we are doing is clearly not enough.

As I have traveled the country, speaking to anyone who will listen, I have begun to focus on the disconnect between our elders—those we always looked upon as our wisdom keepers—and our youth—those I might call apprentices on the human journey. In the skilled trades, apprentices learn from those most experienced; those who have learned their craft through myriad successes and plentiful failure. In life, the masters are those who have deep experience in being human. They have traversed the paths of joy, heartbreak, creation, devastation, love and pain. They know the profound wisdom that comes from living…and only from living.

I recently proposed a gathering of elders and youth for a period of dialogue. My hope was to help our apprentices learn that, in spite of the tremendous pain life can provide, if we travel with others who can help us tease it out, on the other side is joy, wisdom and beauty.

The plan was to bring youth into local retirement communities. The elders are there, and they typically have access to comfortable venues in which to share hopes, fears and dreams.

What I came to discover is that these organizations simply will not allow such meetings to take place. The legal and insurance liabilities are simply too high.

Allowing youth, some of whom may be at risk, into the facility is considered too great a risk should something untoward happen. I get it. I really do. I certainly do not want anyone harmed. But I also believe that real life has risk embedded in it. If we refuse any kind of risk, we leave great wisdom behind.

The second reason is more personal. I have no credentials to facilitate the dialogue. 3000 hours on a suicide hotline and 11 years with teens at Operation Snowball are admirable, but not credible. This too I understand. But it hurts.

I’ll get over it. I will find others ways to combat the epidemic if youth suicide, but for now I am going to honor my broken heart.

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 292016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 072013
 

The following will appear in the September/October edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The truth of who we are is betwixt and between…and we need courage to find it.
The St. Charles middle schools recently hosted an Operation Snowflake event. Like Operation Snowball, which is for high school students, Snowflake is for 6th, 7th and 8th graders and is intended to be a place where students can be with peers who want to live a healthy lifestyle. I was asked to be the “motivational speaker” speaker that afternoon.
I thought long and hard about the message I wanted to impart; I wrote and rewrote my remarks many times. The night before the event, a teen at Operation Snowball spoke of the debilitating bullying to which he had been subjected during his years in middle school. I was so taken by his remarks, I found it difficult to sleep and awoke early the next morning and reworked my remarks one last time.
Either bullying was not the cultural tsunami it is today, or I was simply fortunate to have escaped its devastation…at least from other teens in my life. Yet I recall 7th and 8th grades as two of the loneliest years of my life. Episodes that seem trivial today, 50 years ago as an insecure and fragile human being, seemed large and unrelenting…their consequences insurmountable.
I remember a Jungian psychologist who suggested that, throughout the early years of life, we get messages from parents, family and friends about who we need to be in order to be loved or even lovable. What we must eventually discern, if we ever hope to liberate ourselves from the assault, is that few, if any, of those people know who we are at the core of our being. What makes those years terrifying and lonely is that we fall short in our attempt to be who others demand we become. Since we are someone else, it is easy to wedge a knife into the gap and twist it in such a way the pain becomes excruciating.
So that afternoon I touched on bullying. We agreed that bullying is—whether physically, mentally or emotionally—to make someone feel badly about who they are in the world. When I shared how the teen who became the man who pens these words, seldom had kind words for himself, I asked if they thought I was bullied…and who the most hurtful perpetrator was. Many realized I was, in fact, the most unforgiving bully I had to face every day.
My maternal grandmother was a woman I adored; she loved me greatly. If only I had the wisdom and courage, in moments of despair, to seek her counsel. “What I see of my life, and what I see of me, often leaves me sad and lonely. Would you be willing to tell me what you see?” She would have had amazing words of encouragement and affirmation.
And so, my final admonition for the young people of Snowflake was, in the moments when life seems unrelenting and insurmountable, find an elder who loves you and will walk with you into the truth as they see it. Tell them of your angst, fear and loneliness and ask what they see. That can be very difficult—I never had the courage to try. But the far more arduous task is to believe what they tell you. Trusting another to help us express who we are is one of the most courageous things we can attempt.
Trying to get 6th, 7th and 8th graders to sit still long enough hear my message just may be the second most courageous thing I have ever attempted. I left Operation Snowflake feeling as though I was unable to connect with those young people in the way I had hoped. And yes, many subsequent moments have been consumed beating myself up over the perceived failure. Fortunately, other adults who were in the room have said very kind things about my attempt.
Since we are often unable to see our gifts, we must look to others in the community to help us discern them. The truth of who we are in the world is betwixt and between our self-deprecation and others’ generosity. We just need the courage, when we are betwixt and between, to listen more attentively to the generous, loving words available to us. I wish now I had had the courage to ask my grandmother what she saw.
Jun 222012
 

 

I was a newly-minted MBA moving from an entry-level position to a job selling catalysts in the oil industry. The sales manager, Jim Trecek, arranged for me to spend a week under the tutelage of a renowned salesman in Toronto. His name was Pat McLaughlin.
I arrived at the Toronto airport before Pat, and waited anxiously in my MBA attire—suit and wingtips—hoping to give an appropriate first impression. He spotted me from halfway across the terminal; my rookie patina shown brightly. As he approached, he ignored the carefully planned wardrobe, looked me in the eye and said “I told that Jim Trecek not to send any of you young shits up here to follow me around with a clipboard!” A fleeting glint in his eye shown even more brightly than my rookie façade. This was Pat’s way of welcoming me, and encouraging me not to take what he said, or anything that happened, too seriously. He made it clear I had three responsibilities: open the doors, buy him cigars and pay for lunch. In return, every time he made the slightest misstep, I pretended to pull out a clipboard and make note.
Through uncountable guffaws, and hours of side-splitting laughter, I fell in love with this kind-hearted, amazing man. Over the next five years I had the good fortune of working with Pat in a number of capacities. For two years, I was a sales manager in the Toronto office and got to see him almost everyday—we regularly broke bread together.
The company we worked for had an annual award—the Golden Oval—given only to the best sales people. Any professional was fortunate to win it once. Pat McLaughlin won it numerous times. He loved his customers and only wanted to be of service. He lived for any moment he could solve a problem and make a customer’s life easier. His customers loved to see him because they knew he would never take advantage of them; he could be trusted implicitly. It also helped that Pat had a seemingly infinite repertoire of stories and jokes that kept everyone in his life laughing.
On a recent vacation to visit Judi’s family in Hawai’i, I spent time with a number of ancient texts. In most, our spiritual journey and professional life were never separate or distinct. “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” simply had no meaning in the language of that world. Life’s labors were never intended to be an inconvenience that allowed us to live a different life in the evening, on weekends and vacations, or following retirement. Life’s labors were fundamental in the discovery who we are and how we relate to the world. And only after we make that discovery can life’s tasks be completed most harmoniously with life itself.
I doubt Pat McLaughlin read many ancient spiritual texts. I suspect he never thought of himself as enlightened. What I know is that he had a way of creating harmony in the world by the kind and generous way he shared himself with every human he encountered. He certainly did in my life. In the end, cancer is the cause we assign to Pat’s passing, but I wonder if, in retirement, Pat lost his way of creating harmony with life, and so life simply left him. 30 years later, I still miss him greatly.

 

Aug 302011
 

Note: The following piece is being published in the September issue of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business. I wrote in on my 60th birthday, August 20.

When my parents turned 75, I asked to sit with them and capture a few memories. I hoped to wander the peaks and valleys of their journey; peering into their lives and helping them recall wisdom they surely received over seven and a half decades.
They eventually acquiesced, but not before disavowing any particular insight into what it means to be human. In the midst of the negotiation, a friend said “Ask them if they simply want to be older, or would they rather be elders.”
Older or elder. Change a single letter, and the words suddenly compete for the definitive description of what it means to enter the most senior years of a human’s time on Earth.
Many older people have either learned to deny their wisdom. or are so certain of it they populate their discourse with an overabundance of sentences ending with periods. Their ideas are correct, indisputable and change slower than Earth’s tectonic plates collide. The fields where their discussions take root are arid and choked with weeds; not an environment where a delicate new idea might find nourishment. And when life comes to an end, they often leave kicking and screaming.
On the other hand, I know many seniors who don’t need to deny or declare their wisdom. Through the subtlety and openness afforded by question marks, their intellectual gardens nurture new species of mental flora or fauna. They are the elders who have planted seeds of wisdom in my life.
In a recent discussion with friends, we explored the myriad roots and meanings of the word “wisdom”. One image emerged in the midst of the conversation: a wise person is perpetually in an honest, deeply inquisitive relationship with the world as it arises in front of them. Such a person approaches every moment with the eyes of a child…in wonderment and amazement. They have the stunning ability to bring their years of experience to each moment, making it more extraordinary, but don’t allow the learnings from their yesterdays to blind them to some subtle newness that may avail itself tomorrow. They are aware that every moment offers the possibility of an idea, thought or experience without precedent in their life, or perhaps even in the life of all humanity.
Why the ruminations about elderhood versus olderhood? I awoke early this morning to wander this path because today is the 60th anniversary of the day I arrived on this planet. And while I don’t remember, I’m sure I arrived as most do, literally kicking and screaming.
I am more aware than ever that I am dipping my toes into the senior years of my life. And so, I too must begin to ask if I desire the wisdom and grace of elderhood, or am I destined to become stuck in the intellectual drought that results from the overuse of declarations…and scarcity of question marks. Should I live to see the completion of 70 or 80 years, will I have developed an honest, deeply inquisitive relationship with the world as it arises in front of me? Will I learn to experience the world with a gentle sense of wonderment, amazement and perhaps a bit of wisdom?
Or will I leave as I arrived…kicking and screaming?

 

Aug 112011
 

 

I wrote this piece shortly after my father passed away in 2005. A young friend from Operation Snowball lost her father this week to cancer. I reprint this here in honor of Megan Scott and her father. The footprints you are leaving, Megan, are filled with love and courage. You are very special.
 
“But Roger,” she said with tears in her eyes, “it feels like I am throwing him away. I can’t throw him away.”
In the months following my father’s death, my mother, God bless her, spent many hours cleaning out the house—going through my dad’s things and making painful decisions about what to do with what often feels like mountains of personal effects. While she did much of this in solitude, because my father and I were partners in a consulting practice, she wanted me with her as we approached the file cabinet that contained most of his written history. We faced thousands of articles, pictures, certificates, awards, letters, notes and other memorabilia. Knowing we couldn’t keep it all—it’s hard enough to go through it once—we discarded all but the most sacred reminders of his journey. But there were times when, I admit, it felt as though pieces of him were being discarded with the tattered fragments of paper.
But then I recalled what I learned in the days immediately after he died, during which hundreds of people came to tell us stories of how they were changed by something my father did. I learned of a neighbor, dying from ALS, who my father picked up every morning so he could go to church, and for coffee at McDonalds afterwards. I met a recently widowed church elder. He told my mother tearfully, “Just a few weeks ago, Wally told me he loved me. You have no idea how much that means.” I learned of the church secretary who loved how my dad would leave a quarter in the office every time he took a cup of coffee. “No one else ever does that,” she told us.
These are a few of the footprints my father left behind. You can’t put those in a file folder and you can’t throw them away at the end of a person’s life. It is in the changing of others that we continue to live on in this world—not through the awards and certificates we file.
It’s vain I know, but I too have file folders stuffed with memorabilia about the “whats” of my life. Having experienced both the “whats” and the “whos” of my father’s life, I now wonder about who I have been, who I am today, and who I will choose to be in my future—in the next decade, the next year, the next week…even in the very next moment. I wonder if the footprints I am leaving are ones that will leave the world a more generous and joyful place.
That becomes one last footprint my father left in my life—one I can never throw away.
Sep 022010
 

What appears below was published recently in Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

On July 13, separated by a mere 22 minutes, calls arrived at the Batavia Fire Department announcing that the community it had lost two of its elders. On that warm summer day, we lost one who, through her extraordinary life of generosity, created much of the history that makes me so proud to call this enclave my home…and we lost one who chronicled our story and brought our history to life through her generous and precise use of language.

I knew Mildred Bailey for most of the years I have lived in Batavia. It was impossible to walk the streets of the town for very long before witnessing the joy left in the wake of her activity. A day seldom passed when she failed to turn to her husband and say, “Let’s go Roy, we have work to do.” They were instrumental in the success of the Interfaith Food Pantry and Clothes Closet. Even as she died, Mildred was searching for apparel so the less fortunate amongst us would be prepared for the new school year. However, her most endearing legacy will live in the hearts of thousands of children delighted by the toys and clothes they found lovingly placed in their homes Christmas morning. She and Ruth Johnsen inspired an army of citizens to donate, sort and distribute a mountain of gifts every year.

Marilyn Robinson inspired a generation of Batavians as a teacher at Batavia High School. When she left teaching, she abandoned plans to retire to Arizona because the pull of the community she claimed as her own was far too strong. She had grown to love this place too much for it to fade into her past. It was to become the entirety of her remaining days and all of us were to become enrolled in it. She and Jeff Schielke undertook the task of rewriting the tale of Batavia, originally penned by John Gustafson. Marilyn contributed, along with the facts of our past, her passion for the accuracy of ways the fibers were woven into our story. As a result we know better from where we have come, and have a stronger and more majestic foundation for the journey into our future.

As I tried to comprehend the magnitude of our collective loss on that July day, I was drawn to a favorite book: Claiming Your Place at the Fire by Leider and Shapiro. In this work, the authors remind us that in tribal cultures, the elders—the men and women of wisdom—were offered places nearest the evening fire as a way to honor the lessons and wisdom life had bestowed upon them. The remainder of the tribe took positions behind them, further from the flames of the fire, but close to the flames of wisdom emanating from the minds and hearts of the wise ones.

I wish I could journey back to July 12 so I could build a fire. I long for one last opportunity to invite Mildred and Marilyn to sit in that place of honor nearest the flames so they would know the love and deep respect I had for them. I wish too, there were still time to ask them to share with me the lessons and wisdom they harvested during the many seasons of their lives. But I have lost that precious opportunity.

But the future has now opened to us in another way. With the passing of these elders, we have two places at the fire. I am left to wonder if we have the generosity to turn to the one next to us and ask them to move closer to its flames by encouraging them to share something of the wisdom they, and only they, possess. And I wonder if we have enough respect for ourselves to summon the courage and humility required to share the wisdom we have been given. Mildred and Marilyn are looking down, hoping we do.