Jun 102015
 

Note: This has been submitted for the July/August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Humanity is, I believe, on the cusp of a new era. Depending on the choices we make, the future will be informed by wisdom beyond our dreams, or imbued with ignorance and wanting.

Am I alone in feeling that many of our species’ collective actions seem self-centered and selfish? It’s as if we are still in our adolescence searching for identity. We grab Earth’s resources because exerting power over Mother Earth—or as I prefer, Pacha Mama—affirms an identity we doubt.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of the hero’s journey, an individual’s passage through the depths and darkness, emerging on the other side with wisdom and sagacity, the profundity of which can only come from the struggle. What most separates youth from elderhood is a deep understanding and acceptance of self, much of which comes from the many struggles through which we visit the depths and return, burnished, refined and wiser…less ego-imbued, self-centered and selfish.

The people we embrace as wisdom keepers throughout history were, at some point, torn asunder by journeys of nearly unfathomable pain and heartbreak, only to return with an extraordinary understanding of what it means to be human. Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s ego-crushing years in prison comes to mind.

As a species, we have faced many journeys through the darkness: world wars, genocides, famines and natural disasters. We have gained wisdom from each, but we seem to forget so rapidly, returning to wasteful, selfish ways—ignorant of the delicate, life-giving balance of the planet. Today, we deplete precious resources at increasingly alarming rates.

Perhaps the hero’s journey that will provide lasting wisdom—move us closer to elderhood of the species—is yet to come.

My brother-in-law, Professor Emeritus of Geology at the University of Hawai’i, has spoken of a world depleted of oil…a world he feels is approaching swiftly, much sooner than we can find alternatives. Having read and listened, it is an often frightening picture that can include famine, institutional collapse and chaos. Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus from Harvard, once referred to the 21st century as the bottleneck humanity must negotiate if we are to survive.

I wonder if what lies ahead is a collective hero’s journey unlike those through which we have already traversed. A journey that will refine and burnish the species in ways we cannot yet imagine. If such a journey is in our future, I also wonder if we will find the courage to endure the depths required for our resurrection as wiser, more mature inhabitants of the Earth…to move as a species from adolescence into elderhood.

If we do find the courage to make generosity and compassion our dominant voice, those moments are perhaps the greatest opportunities we have ever had for acquiring wisdom. If we do not, I fear we will never advance beyond our current selfish ignorance.

We could be standing at the doorway, upon a huge welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pacha Mama the next epoch of her future. Not a future separate from humanity and not a future for humanity separate from Mother Nature. But a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined; a future in which we finally understand and fully respect our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species. The next century offers us an advanced degree in existentialism. Why do we exist? Do we truly belong here in this Universe? And if we do, what is our role and how should we be in relation to life itself.

If the hero’s journey I am suggesting transpires, we are approaching a time during which we can allow Pacha Mama to extract from us, individually and collectively, the infinite wisdom of which we are capable. That future holds for all creatures, riches of joy, wisdom, generosity, understanding and love beyond anything we have ever imagined, or ever could imagine. Will we get there without pain, heartache, suffering and sadness? That would contradict the very definition of wisdom. Will the riches we will discover be commensurate with the heartache and suffering we may face? Not only is it possible, I believe the wisdom available to us far exceeds the price we are asked to pay.

I fervently believe it is human nature to be generous rather than selfish. When we stop long enough to re-connect with parts of the biosphere from which we have become aliens, I hope we will re-member we are part of a much larger whole.

I must have hope. Because if I lose hope, what have I left?

Dec 182013
 
Note:The following will appear in the January/February Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
For more reasons than I can recount, I chose well the day I proposed to my bride. Not only is she from Hawai’i and “forces” me to visit her immediate family in Honolulu, but she has family in Thailand and Malaysia as well. We recently embarked on a long-delayed journey to meet them for the first time.
I have loved my in-laws for many years. Now that I have met the extended family in the Far East, I have many more to love…and admire. Being in the presence of a warm and generous family can leave you in awe, but that is an insufficient descriptor for the depth of my love and respect.
I learned of their generosity and acceptance our first night in Malaysia. In a wonderful seafood restaurant, I struggled with chopsticks to extract crabmeat from a tenacious shell and claws. I was the only one with seafood and sauce strewn across the tablecloth. When one last bit of crabmeat escaped the death-grip with which my fingers juggled those two tiny pieces of wood—and splashed another puddle of sauce across the tablecloth—I was mortified and did my best to hide the mayhem with my napkin. One young nephew sitting next to me, with the most understanding gaze, turned to me and said “It’s okay…don’t worry.” It was a generous moment of acceptance I will not soon forget.
The Saturday night we spent in their home, more than 50 family members gathered for an evening of food, fun and festivities. I have seldom seen such a well-orchestrated feast as the family unveiled a cornucopia of cultural treats…and more joy and love than one could imagine.
The final night we were there, after far too many glasses of scotch, they even coaxed yours truly to take to the microphone for karaoke.
If you could choose a family to call your own, it would be difficult to find one more life-affirming. And yet, this family was nearly ripped apart many years ago. When the patriarch, Ivan, was just 19, both his parents departed this earth, leaving him to care for four younger siblings.
I have only the most rudimentary sense of the anguish of leaving a young family to fend for themselves. Many years ago, on a weekend retreat with my daughter, a teen recounted the death of her father when she was in eighth grade. She described the unfathomable grief and heartache that gets only marginally easier as the years pass. In the ensuing moments, I realized, in a way I had not prior, that I will likely depart this earth leaving my children behind to face the world alone. The separation, loneliness and grief brought me to my knees. That night I literally cried myself to sleep. How could I possibly say goodbye to the children who so animate my life and give it meaning?
Before we left Malaysia, I thanked Ivan and his wife for fulfilling his parents’ deepest longings. “I can only imagine,” I told them, “that your parents would be grateful to know their children are well, happy, and loved.” Ivan looked at me with a gentle smile that spoke of his humility and gratitude and said, “I hope so.”
As I sit here, I can easily be brought to my knees again at the thought of leaving my children alone and vulnerable to the vagaries of life. But now, the pain eases just a bit. Ivan reminded me of the indomitable human spirit and our ability to survive and thrive even in the face of unbearable loss.

 

And I am grateful to my bride and her family whose love, support and encouragement make all these experiences, thoughts and words possible.
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.

 

May 122012
 
If it was that easy, we would all do it, and put an end to much of human misery.
The world can be frightening for any of us, but for teens who are struggling to awaken to who they are in the world, it’s especially difficult. Recently, a courageous young man led a conversation with thirty or more of his peers. He invited them to put pen to paper and anonymously suggest topics for discussion. While the ensuing conversation ranged widely, it spent some time wandering the treacherous terrain of drug addiction, depression, bullying, and the pain that often flows from failed relationships and young love.
As the teens shared the challenges they face, it became clear that elevated self-esteem and self-worth might remedy, or at least assuage, some of their misery. It is, after all, difficult to destroy, or even harm, a human who enjoys a strong sense of worth. Most of us know well the childhood aphorism, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But a name can hurt, maim or even kill, when hurled viciously at a human in doubt of their value.
There were several adults stung by the awareness that these wonderful young people were in pain, and lacked the personal armor to protect them against the “Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune.” Few of us knew how to respond other than to offer reassurances. “You have to know you are valuable,” “You are all amazing” or “Don’t ever doubt yourself.” We utter these words with kindness and generosity, even though we know full-well that when we are beaten and battered by the world, unable to glimpse our self-worth, being told we should not turn a blind eye to our inner value is of little help. A typical private reaction to such a command might begin “If only they knew…”
While teens are particularly vulnerable to the poison arrows that can pierce their fragile self-worth, most of us find ourselves wandering the darkness sometime during our lives. I know I have been brought to my knees any number of times when I failed as a spouse, parent or friend. Few things claw at my self-worth more ferociously than the fear that I may have damaged the worth of those I love.
And yet, even in those moments we are least able to glimpse our own value, most of us can look at others and be witness to, and blessed by, theirs. There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests that if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us we would never accomplish anything…we would be too busy bowing to one another.
Why is it we can have such clarity in discerning the value of others, and be so blind to our own? Many years ago, I was given a hint when visiting with improvisational pianist, Michael Jones. He suggested that our true gifts come to us so naturally, we believe they are nothing special. When another holds up a mirror so we can see our gifts reflected back to us, we are as likely as not to disavow their uniqueness. “Oh that! That’s easy,” we argue. “Anyone could do that.” Michael, himself, denied his rare ability to spontaneously tease melodies from the ivorys of his piano until he was more than 30. He subsequently sold several million CDs worldwide.
So, if someday you find yourself wondering the darkness, certain your life is, as a friend once feared, a “throwaway line,” look courageously into the world and find those willing to bow in your direction. Allow yourself to look into the mirror they hold up and see yourself as they see you. Instead of immediately denying the gifts they see in you, try this instead: take a moment to sincerely absorb their wisdom and generosity, and then say “Thank you, I am honored.”
It can be very difficult, but if it was that easy…
Dec 232011
 
Note: I wrote the following for the January, 2012 Batavia Chamber of Commerce Newsletter.
 
“People hate change” is perhaps the most incorrect aphorism ever uttered. People LOVE change. In fact we crave it. On a CT scan, the human brain lights up in the face of it. If you put a human into an environment devoid of all change, they die!
If humans hate change, we would have spurned cell phones, ignored the Internet, snubbed the personal computer, rejected social media and eschewed wifi. Starbucks, Google, Facebook, Prius, Under Armour, iPad, Blue-Ray and Harry Potter would never have altered our lexicon.
Why is it, then, when the phrase “people hate change” is uttered, everyone nods in agreement? What is it that propels a book about the fear of change to the New York Times business bestseller list and keeps it there for more than 5 years? Maybe it’s because of a different fear…the fear of who we fear we are.
The parable in Who Moved My Cheese is based on two “little people”: named Hem and Haw who, after becoming complacent about what was once a large cache of cheese, deny their fate when, one day, it is gone.
Everyone has been caught acting like Hem or Haw. Most can remember moments when complacency about family, friends or career, left us suddenly lost, or in denial when a foundational piece suddenly crumbled.
But there is a danger in buying into the parable of WMMC with too much gusto. Because we are only privy to one part of their lives, we are left to believe that “hemness” and “hawness” fully defines the two main characters. Then, when I am tempted to even think, “Yeah, I’m a lot like that guy Hem,” I run the risk of seeing myself fully defined in that way. Then fear sets in…fear that I am Hem, I have always been Hem, and, I am sentenced to a life of “hemness”.
It’s true, each of us has a bit of “hemness” about us. We might even see a bit of Hem when we look into the mirror. But it is dangerous to allow those characterizations to define our lives.
I don’t want to be, nor do I deserve to be, defined by the way I behave in some portion of my life. I know I don’t accept change readily when it’s forced upon me. I am facile at finding reasons why a necessary change suggested by another is riddled with weaknesses…won’t work… or makes little sense. Like Hem, I am prepared to sit in the corner of life’s maze and wait for my cache of cheese to return.
But, there are many ways in which I love change. Much of what I believe today no longer resonates with what I believed just a few short years ago. When I look around at the things I have embraced with enthusiasm and gratitude, I know I am not Hem or Haw in most situations.
So, when “hemness” rears its ugly head in my life, or the life of others, what then?
First, I need to find the generosity to acknowledge that this moment does not define a life. It simply means that, momentarily, the perceived costs of change ignite a fear that the perceived benefits do not yet assuage. Once the benefits outweigh the costs, fear eases and change become easy.
To not offer the generosity of acknowledgement in a moment of fear does violence to others… or worse yet, to ourselves…and fuels the fear of who we fear we are.
Dec 172011
 

 

Note: The following will be published in the January/February issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
As 2012 begins, I am aware it is a time during which many reflect on their lives and consider promises to themselves and the world for renewal. We call them New Year’s resolutions.
But as I imagine the New Year, there is a different kind of resolution I seek. Musical harmony reaches a point of resolution when a dissonant note or chord is followed by a consonant one. The dissonant note in my life, for which I seek a consonant resolution, has to do with a kind of selfishness that springs from what I imagined was generosity.
In the closing months of 2011, I spent time with a young man who was struggling mightily over the untimely death of a close friend. I did little more that listen and offer a hug when I thought it might help. Once or twice I looked into his eyes to reaffirm his value, and acknowledge his pain. It felt like the right thing to do. A note he wrote confirmed that what I offered was deeply appreciated. It said, in part, “It was your gentle hand that guided me through these dark times. I credit you with the fact that I’m still here on this earth.” Those words—and what they implied—brought tears to my eyes; tears that return even now as I recall them. His words were unexpected, kind and very generous.
I responded by offering to be there for him if ever he needed me. “Find me,” I said, “no matter what.” He promised he would, but then added words, the depth and sincerity of which I seldom hear from a person not yet 20. “Roger, if you ever need anyone, I will be there for you.” In that moment I found them a bit jarring. What might it mean for me, in a dark moment to call a teen and ask for support? At first, my confusion was wrapped around his ability to offer advice to someone so much older. What words could he possible conjure that would offer comfort? But as I reflected more deeply, I wondered if I would have the courage to call and insert my sadness and misery into his life. How could I burden someone else, especially someone so young, with difficulties that seem insoluble even to me?
That is when the dissonant chord struck. As a friend said, “You are really very selfish with your generosity.” It was okay for me to be the giver. It was okay for me to try to save him, but I was stubbornly unwilling to give him the same opportunity…unwilling to be the recipient of his kind and generous nature. And while he may not conjure words to help me understand the path forward, he is every bit as capable as I to listen, offer a hug when he thinks it might help, or look into my eyes to reaffirm my value and acknowledge my pain.
So the resolution I seek as I peer tentatively into the New Year is the consonant chord of acceptance: to turn to my young friend and say with the deepest sincerity, “Yes! If you are willing to allow me to come to your aid, I, too, will accept your kindness when the slings and arrows life hurls at me penetrate too deeply.”
It is said it is more blessed to give than to receive, but when I am only willing to give, I create a dissonance in the world that begs for resolution. I add harmony when I find the courage to tear down walls I have built to protect myself and allow others to be generous in return. It is that resolution I seek in 2012 as I try not to be so selfish with my generosity.
I wish you great harmony in the New Year.
Jul 162010
 

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

 
“It must have been a place so dark you couldn’t feel the light, reaching for you through that stormy cloud.”

                                                Country Music Group Rascal Flatts
In the prior issue of Neighbors (published here on April 12 as “Connections”), I said, “…when a group of high school students was recently asked if they had ever considered suicide, I was stunned to see the number who had.” As I reread those words in late April, I was painfully aware that Dylan James Wagner, a freshman at Batavia High School, found his life so overwhelming that he ended it. In the ensuing weeks, I agonized over our collective inability to put our arms around this young man and help him feel the light—and love—reaching for him through the stormy clouds that defined the tragic moments in his life.
As I reflected on our collective failure, I was reminded of words from William Bridges, author of the book Transitions. “One thing kids need is honesty…a realistic picture of what it’s like to be an adult—that you’re confused so much of the time and frequently really scared. I hear parents talking about setting a good example for their children. Their version means never saying any of that stuff. So we’re producing kids who don’t know what to make of fear and confusion when they encounter it.”
In addition to sharing our fear and confusion, I wonder if living in a more honest world means listening more intensely to our children about how complex and frightening this world must seem. I grew up during the emerging cold war, the proliferation of bomb shelters and school drills to protect us from a nuclear attack. It was scary. But today, terrorism highlights our daily news, global warming is a growing threat, environmental disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill blare for weeks, the cancer epidemic seems to impact every family and neighborhood, war rages in Iraq and Afghanistan and threatens in Korea. Shall I continue? In the face of all that, how does it feel when a young personal world seems to fall apart—a parent yells, a clique becomes brutal, a failing grade appears, a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks off? Do we really know?
I wasn’t given the gift of having Dylan Wagner in my life, but I have come to know and care for hundreds of teens through Operation Snowball, and they have generously returned their love. So my closing thoughts are for them…even though few will likely find me hiding out here in the pages of a community magazine.
Thank you for courageously sharing moments when it was difficult to see the light reaching through the oft stormy clouds that drift through your life. Thank you for listening when I look into your eyes and affirm your beauty and significance.
Through your courage, authenticity and generosity, you have gifted me with some of the most stunning and joyful moments any human could imagine. You have shown me how the tears born of pain can become the tears of joy in a moment of sharing. I now understand how the magnificent beauty of life cannot be teased apart from its darker moments.
Life is difficult. But, if that is all you allow yourself to see, you discount the extraordinary complexity that makes this world so remarkable. Each of us is unique; each lives a life never before lived by another human being. Each is given some glimpse into what it means to be human that has never before been seen and will never be seen again. Through your experience of pain and sorrow, life is granting you the wisdom to look into the eyes of another and say, “I understand something of what life is trying to teach. Allow me to help you find the path forward.”
Whether you can see it or not, the world desperately needs the insight life is trying to share through you. If you will summon the courage to embrace pain and share its ensuing wisdom, the Universe has infinite joy and beauty it is willing to share.
Apr 192010
 

It is a common aphorism in Buddhism: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. But being ready, and recognizing the teacher in your midst, is often difficult—especially when you are blinded by emotion, and it takes humility and forgiveness to restore your sight.

Recently, Judi and I attended a week long Hawaiian music festival on the island of Hawaii. The hulas, music, chanting and dress were nothing short of stunning. But it was in the midst of the magic that events conspired—and an unlikely teacher was sent—to teach me how the world is so often different than I first perceive it.
Just before the festival began, I left my seat to purchase a program. When I tried to return to my seat, moments after the opening ceremony commenced, a stern-looking, Hawaiian security guard tied a rope across the stairway and told me the stairs were closed. When I asked how I could get back to my seat to see the show, I’m sure my frustration was apparent. In the pidgin-English so common in Hawaii, he said “When it ova” and his gaze and posture showed he was not about to be intimidated. Twenty minutes later, when the opening ceremony was “ova,” they lowered the rope at the stairway to my left. The guard, who stood eye-to-eye with me, indicated his stairway was for exiting only by pointing me to the other set of stairs. I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly followed his directions…but I was more than a little upset.
My Hawaiian partner in this dance of power had a graying ponytail, leather hat and leather vest…I was certain his motorcycle sat waiting for him out back. Judging from the look on his face, he seldom smiled and, I surmised, had been granted little in the way of a sense of humor. He was certainly not someone with whom I would want to spend any protracted period of time. Part of my frustration stemmed from my being intimidated…it was clear he could win any power struggle and I felt inferior.
I spent much of that first night angry. He certainly did not treat me in the spirit of “Aloha,” the Hawaiian approach to welcome and hospitality. I made a mental list of the ways he could have better responded to my needs as I stood as the guest in his presence.
The second evening I had overcome my anger and began to realize the festival was correct to honor the opening ceremony by not allowing the disruption of people entering late. Nonetheless, I was happy to discover the guards changed stations and I did not have to face my nemesis.
The third night, he was back, but I managed to get to my seat without being noticed. But, as I sat in the bleachers awaiting the final hours of the festival, I realized I was in pain—my frustration and unwillingness to view the world through his eyes had left a wound in the human family. Then I recalled a phrase from the book, Effective Apology by John Kador: “When the relationship is more important than being right.” In that moment, even though my relationship with the guard was temporary, unless I acted, it would remain with me as an emotional scar. Repairing it became more important than finding a way to extract some amount of emotional compensation. I left my seat to search out the man who was to become, in the next moment, my teacher. He recognized me immediately. He looked at me, not knowing what to expect. I held out my hand, looked him in the eye and said, “I was frustrated the other night, and treated you badly. You did not deserve it and I am sorry.” In the next moment, the brightest smile broke across his face. This very stern Hawaiian was smiling and shyly looking at the floor…he suddenly found it difficult to face me. “It’s no problem!” he said as he warmly shook my hand.
So what did he arrive to teach? I learned much from this simple teacher, but the lesson that feels most humbling was about my prejudices. Prejudice simply means to pre-judge. On that third night, when he looked at me with that very genuine, gentle smile I realized that I had not allowed this very human of beings to fully show up in my world. I had placed him in a box into which he certainly did not belong. I also learned that generosity and kindness are sincerely returned, often when you least expect it.