Oct 072017
 

Now and again, I find the work of an author so compelling, their book deserves a mention not only in my list of recommended books, but as a separate post. “Reset Your Child’s Brain” by Victoria Dunckley, MD is such a work.

Dr. Dunckley, over the past 20 years, has been documenting a disorder she christened Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). It is caused when the human brain—especially in children and young adults—is chronically over-stimulated by electronics. Symptoms of ESS in youth include, but are not limited to, inability to focus, poor sleep patterns, falling grades, meltdowns, defiance, fits of rage and loss of friends.

I have wondered whether our growing addiction to laptops, tablets, smartphones, television—and the games, apps and programs that animate them—have an impact on us. However, I was unprepared for the enormity of Dr. Dunckley’s findings. It’s difficult to know where to even begin.

Perhaps most disturbing is the evidence that youth, who are often seized for hours every day in “fight-or-flight” mode, face greatly increased levels adrenaline and cortisol in their system. In that mode, the body moves blood to the muscles and away from other critical organs…like the brain. When that happens, the development of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex can be impeded with potentially long-term adverse effects on cognition and executive function.

Secondly, the blue light emitted by virtually all screens disrupts the body’s levels of serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin, which disrupts sleep patterns and can lead to mood disorders, stress and general dysregulation of the body’s metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes.

The author does NOT leave the reader without solutions. She suggests that any person, but especially children and young adults, who show signs of ESS, avoid all electronic screens for a period of at least three weeks to see if the body is able to re-regulate and return to a healthier relationship with the outside world.

If you have children, know of children, or even care about children, this book is worth your time and attention.

Apr 062017
 

One evening this past February, at Operation Snowball, the teen leadership program for which I volunteer, a young woman approached me about a deep sadness that momentarily infused her life. I spoke with her briefly, but the appropriate words eluded me in that moment. The next morning I sent her the following note.

Gianna,

Let me begin by telling you how touched I was you would reach out to me last night. I feel blessed by your invitation. At the same time, it feels as though, in the moment, I was unclear and inarticulate. I have reflected on our time together and would like to share some of those reflections.

The deep sadness you described is indeed difficult. When we are in that place, we wish so much to be free of the pain. I have spent hundreds of hours on the suicide hotline with people who are trying to escape the gulf they feel in their lives. In those moments I will often ask, “Is there something you are learning from this pain that helps you better understand the human journey?” The typical response is “You have no idea!” When our hearts break, the holiness of the human journey enters it in a new way and our hearts grow. In those moments, we become more able to help others on their journey.

It is sometimes helpful to think of all the emotions that populate our lives—sadness, joy, anger, fear, etc.—as passing clouds. They come into our purview, and whether we want them to stay or not, they pass away. It is the definition of being human. The journey is to notice them and see what they have to teach us about being human. If we view them as teachers, we can also see each and every one as gifts. We can be thankful for them…and not grow attached to them. They will go…and one day return to teach us yet again.

Gianna, you (and your sister) are amazing gifts in the lives of so many of us. Your joy, your kindness, the love you have for each other, changes each of us for the better. You inform us in your own unique way, about the miracle of the human journey. As long as you continue to grow into the extraordinary young woman you are becoming, and are willing to let your life speak to others, then let the sadness simply evaporate. That cloud, too will pass.

Finally, this morning as I was reflecting on our time together, I was reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Two quotes from that profound volume informed this missive. The first was from a psalm: “Who passing through the vale of tears makes it a well.” When we allow the tears and sadness to break open our hearts and enlarge their capacity, we become a well from which others can gain wisdom and strength.

The second is, “And so I would say to everyone: You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”

When I looked deeply into the eyes of the extraordinary young woman in front of me last night, it became clear to me that you are a masterpiece in the making. I am blessed by you in my life.

Hugs,

Roger

Jan 012017
 

It’s time again for resolutions, but in this moment, it is not New Year’s resolutions I seek. I am, instead, in a quandary about New Epoch’s resolutions. What might I resolve as we enter what many geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch?

Anthropocene, much like Anthropology or anthropomorphic, takes its root from the Greek anthropos, a prefix meaning human, humanoid, or humanlike. The Anthropocene is proposed as an epoch dating from when human activities began their significant global impact on Earth‘s geology and ecosystems.

It’s one thing to conscript a resolution you can review in 12 months’ time. How do I even imagine some action in the coming days whose impact will play out over tens of thousands, or even millions, of years?

Two recent books add to my confusion. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert both speak of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of years, as if they are single pages in a novel. The eons, eras, periods, and epochs of the past are forever recorded in stratifications on the Earth’s crust. The history of entire species is often reduced to a mere sliver of rock or sediment.

Harari’s book was disturbing in its reconstruction of the history of the species Homo Sapiens, the humans to whom you send annual holiday greetings and birthday cards. While we like to think of ours as the only human species to have inhabited Mother Earth, some 70,000 years ago, many human species inhabited the planet, each of the genus Homo. 60,000 years later, we had managed to rid the planet of every one of our brothers and sisters in that genus. We discovered agriculture 12,000 years ago, and within a split second, at least by geologic time, we invented the iPhone…and scarred 50% of the Earth’s surface.

Kolbert’s work chronicles the massive environmental stresses that appear to be terminating untold numbers of species—many disappearing even as you read this sentence. Whether or not you accept Homo Sapiens’ role, I believe we are highly culpable.

When I imagine human history in terms of geologic split seconds, what could possibly be the meaning of a resolution to be more kind, exercise more, lose weight, or leave a smaller personal footprint on the planet? Each seems appallingly insignificant.

As a result of our species’ arrogance and greed, many geologists believe our future is no more assured than that of the other members of the genus Homo. One scientist even suggested that in a hundred million years, all that we consider the great works of man—the sculptures, libraries, monuments, museums, cities and factories—“will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”

Does anything I attempt, as I wander further into the Anthropocene, matter a whit, if every deed—good or bad—is destined to be lost in a layer of sediment no thicker that a cigarette paper?

In early December, I received a call from a dear friend on the staff of a nearby school district. Three days earlier, one of their students choose to end her own life. Her classmates are confused, in pain and suffering pangs of guilt. I will go there in the coming weeks to do nothing more than be with these young ambassadors to the future in their sorrow and confusion. I will try to help them see the miracle each of them is capable of being as they move into the new epoch. So, even if all human history is eventually reduced to a sliver of sediment 100 million years hence, by dint of a bit of healing and hope, we just might alter every forthcoming moment and every future layer of the Earth’s fragile skin.

In this moment, I cannot imagine anything more significant.

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 172016
 

The 14-year-old who called the hotline last week was in desperate need of healing and self-absolution.  I realize now, the seed of the conversation we shared was planted nearly 40 years ago.

After finishing my master’s degree, I was invited to teach mathematics at The Hun School, a private, preparatory school just outside of Princeton, NJ. Teaching encompassed four years of my life, but, for my students, I will have been their math teacher for the entirety of theirs. When you fail in many endeavors, there is often a remedy. When you fail as a teacher, your students live with your ineptitude until the day they pass from this Earth.

I often felt inept…unpolished…incapable of reaching the students who struggled mightily with algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Often, they needed a guide with great patience, and I came up short. Those failures weigh heavily even 40 years later.

A note recently left on my website, reminded me of moments in which, perhaps, I was less inept. I was touched by the memories it evoked. The missive was from Hossein Haj-Hariri, who arrived from Iran in his junior year. I could present him as proof of my success as a teacher, but Hossein would have excelled with nearly any teacher. He worked diligently, but he had an innate aptitude for mathematics. He and a few of his peers easily opened their minds to the concepts behind the numbers and the theory. Hossein subsequently spent 28 years on the faculty at University of Virginia, and was recently named dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at The University of South Carolina.

In spite of their innate ability, I remember one or two moments when Hossein and friends came with a question, standing on the precipice of understanding, but not quite over the edge. In those moments, we would engage with the mathematics; when understanding eluded us we would ask each other if we could possibly see the problem another way. As we challenged each other to look anew, there would come a moment when their eyes—or mine—would light up as we completed a critical neural pathway and a new piece of the puzzling language of mathematics fell into place. Those moments too, I remember 40 years later.

I had no idea how central to my very being the idea of seeing another way would become. This week, the young boy who called the suicide hotline was wracked by disease. The ensuing bullying from both peers and self, demarcated a life of failure, pain and self-loathing. And yet, every story he recounted spoke of his caring, generosity and fierce defense of loved ones. Late in our time together, I asked him to describe something, anything, wonderful within. “I can’t,” he told me in a soft voice. “I hate everything about myself.” So I began to recount his stories of caring, generosity and love, and asked if he could witness, not shortcomings, but his huge heart. “It’s your superpower,” I suggested. I also told him I loved him, and who he is in the world. Near tears he told me those were words he seldom hears. “Would you be willing to see your life through your enormous heart?” I asked just before the call ended. “Thank you, I will try,” were his final words to me.

So thank you Dr. Haj-Hariri for helping me discover the power of the simple question, “Could we see it another way?” You helped me ease the horrific pain of a young man whose enormous heart lay hidden.

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.

Apr 042016
 

There is a Buddhist tale about parents who asked a local monk to teach their child to live free of anger and hatred. “Of course,” replied the monk. “Bring your child back in two years.” Two years later they returned and instruction commenced. Confused, they asked why the teachings had to wait. “Because,” the monk replied, “First, I had to learn to live free of anger and hatred.”

At Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer, we use the acronym IALAC: I Am Lovable And Capable. About a month before our Spring retreat the Teen Directors asked me to speak about IALAC for the 130 or more teens who would attend. The moment they asked, I recalled the Buddhist story and my heart skipped a beat. “I must first come to believe I am lovable,” I thought “and I don’t have two years to discern the truth.”

Everyone has moments in which the reflection they witness in the mirror of life is of a person they find difficult to love. I recall many failures as a parent, when ego and insecurity prevented me from being the kind, gentle and wise guide I hoped to be for my children; failures as a husband, when attending to my agenda left my wife feeling abandoned and lonely; failures in my career, where I anticipated becoming a captain of industry…forty years later my resume is a train-wreck by most traditional measures.

Father, Husband, Provider. If these roles define a man’s life, and you feel you have failed, it can be challenging to look in the mirror and perceive a person who is lovable.

As the weeks slipped by, I struggled to find the lens through which I could see myself as unconditionally lovable. And because teens are still apprentices at life, their mistakes, hurts and scars can seem crushingly painful, and leave them feeling hopelessly unloved and unlovable. If I struggle to see myself as unconditionally lovable, how could I provide them a lens of lovability through which they could perceive themselves?

At some moment the path opened. The teens themselves are, and have been for ten years, the lens through which I can see myself as lovable. I have hundreds of handwritten notes—words that leave me humbled and in tears—in which teens have held up unblemished mirrors to help me see what they see. Their view can be a more genuine reflection than mine because, in my mirror, the brutal voice of failure vies for dominance over the quiet, often shy and cautious voice that knows I am lovable.

So when the time came to speak, after I described the critical self-reflection to which I am often witness, I asked, by show of hands, how many have seen something in me that is lovable. The response, in all humility, brought me to my knees. “What if,” I suggested, “I step out of my body, leave Roger here in front, and come sit amongst you.” I made a gesture of stepping out of my own body, and I sat down in their midst.

As I sat, surrounded by these loving young truth-tellers, looking up at the virtual person I left standing before us, it became easier to see a man who—in spite of his failures, missteps and scars—cares deeply and tries mightily. Suddenly I was able to glimpse a man who is lovable.

So I returned to the question that began our time together: Are we, each of us, lovable and capable of love? “Of that,” I said “there is no doubt. From the moment you were conceived, in every moment since, and in each moment into the future, you are infinitely lovable and capable of love.” “It is,” I continued, “fundamentally the wrong question. The real question is, ‘Are you willing to find the courage to listen and believe?’”

When life leaves us questioning our worth—leaves us feeling hopeless—it is helpful to find a truth-teller…someone who loves us and will recount honestly what they see in us. All that remains is to look, with an open heart, into the reflection they so generously offer, silence the voice of denial, and summon the courage to listen and believe.

Nov 132015
 

Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself in the embrace of an African American teen who was crying uncontrollably. His deep emotional response was too much for me to remain untouched; my tears soon followed. After several minutes, he released his grip, looked me in the eye and said “Thank you so much.” I felt blessed by the encounter.

How can an aging white male and a young black man find such an intimate moment of meeting? It blossomed from our shared humanity, and a profound need in our culture.

The final event on every Snowball weekend is a hug circle. We wind the nearly 120 teens and 20 or more adults in a snake-like pattern that enables each of us to face and hug every other participant. I began and ended the circle with a young man I had seen on the event, but had not met. I had no idea how dramatically that was about to change.

As he and I finished, some in the room had yet to hug everyone, so we had a moment to chat. Never wanting to waste an opportunity to peer into another, I asked what he learned about himself during the previous forty eight hours. “I learned I cry very easily,” he said. It can be difficult for a male in this culture to admit they are not always in control of their emotions. Young men are ridiculed or bullied for cultural infractions far less serious.

I thanked him and expressed my belief that men need to learn how to be more in touch with their emotions, and publicly vulnerable. “After all my years in Snowball, if there is one thing teens respect…appreciate… perhaps even love me for, it is my willingness to be open and emotionally exposed…often in tears” I pointed to his heart and said “Your tears—modeling vulnerability—may be your greatest gift.” It was those words that caught him. Tears welled up and our extended embrace began.

Had you told me before I began my foray into Operation Snowball ten years ago I would one day find words to draw tears from a young man in this way, I would likely have found it difficult to believe. But I have since learned I have some facility to look deeply into the hearts of teens and hold up a mirror to help them see the beauty I see.

Whenever I am gifted by such moments, worlds shift—both mine and the teen’s—and I feel graced by the encounter. And I am reminded we never learn all there is to be learned about who we are, and the blessings that lie ahead.

Oct 052015
 

It was an unexpectedly tender moment. On a recent Sunday morning, as I sat at a local coffee shop, a friend approached. “Roger, I know you advise people on occasion. I was wondering if we might chat for a moment.” I’m not a counselor, but as a friend, I readily agreed to explore her obvious pain. Tears began to fill her eyes. “I discovered my daughter snuck out of the house late last night to be with her friends. She has never done such a thing. I don’t know what to do.” 

 Moments of vulnerability, when two people face our unknowingness with honesty and courage, are rare, but so pregnant with possibility. When we choose to inhabit those moments raw and childlike, they offer miraculous opportunities to learn together. All I know of parenting and adolescent psychology are random, often misguided, thoughts gleaned from being a parent. Since I know little more, if anything, than she, perhaps we could allow our experiences and wisdom to collide, and then simply be open to what we might discover together. 

 Seeing the pain in her eyes, I asked if she could let everything drop away and discern the deepest emotion prompting the tears. She paused, thought, and said she really didn’t know. I asked if I could suggest one—I knew what would be at the heart of my tears if I was living her life in this moment. “Are you frightened? Afraid? I suspect you love your daughter more than life itself. You feel yourself losing control, and are simply frightened something will happen to interrupt her life in some horrific way.”  

 With that, fresh tears appeared. In that moment, I knew we were touching on emotions all parents share and understand in much the same way. 

 She went on to explain she and her daughter had an argument several weeks earlier, and it was never truly resolved. “Our relationship is changing in ways I simply do not understand. I know it must change as she becomes an adult, but this feels so frightening.” 

 I asked how she discovered the conceit of the previous evening. She revealed she had surreptitiously taken her daughter’s cell phone and looked at the previous night’s texts. “She’ll be angry when she finds out I looked at her phone.” 

 The relationship between parents and children is complex and often confusing. There is little I know for sure, but I have a fundamental belief: love and honesty must gird the foundation of the relationship. But honesty is so very difficult when we forget to take the time to search deep inside, and show up stark naked and deeply vulnerable. 

 Fear, misunderstood, turns quickly into anger. The reptilian remnants of our brain flood the cortex with neurotransmitters that disable our ability to think. In those moments, we allow anger to throw us unbidden into the craggy terrain called retribution. “How dare she discount my wisdom as a parent? I’ll show her who’s boss!” In the short term, retribution can feel good. In the longer term it annihilates relationships; fractures the foundation built of honesty and love, and replaces them with compost made of distrust and disrespect. I know this dysfunctional path all too well. 

 There is an alternative to retribution. For thousands of generations in native cultures, humans believed in reconciliation rather than retribution. How can victim and perpetrator face one another to simply understand the pain and heartache that allows sometimes horrific actions to emerge? So often, just being heard is enough. We simply want others to see us, and acknowledge and honor our pain. 

 In the end, there is no painless path into relationships, especially with those we love. If there was, what value would they truly hold in our lives? Pain, and the often unfathomable heartache that comes when we fear the loss of those who mean the most to us, is the price we pay for love. 

Jan 072012
 

 

Every once in a while I am arrogant enough to think that life has left me in charge. When I believe I am, life is quick to remind me of my arrogance.
Just before Christmas, the Operation Snowball family lost another teen to suicide. This past Thursday, the teen directors decided to use the weekly meeting to explore the scourge of teen suicide. They chose two videos and asked me to facilitate.
I watched the videos that afternoon. They were compelling. In the second, based on the song Why by Rascal Flatts, the line “Why would you leave the stage in the middle of a song” rips my heart out, especially as I recall the loss of my dear young friend Dakota Lewis. All afternoon, I held tight to an emotional roller coaster as I imagined the powerful evening that might emerge. In my hands would be the hearts and minds of 50 or more teens. These extraordinary young people mean so much to me, the possibility of turning these few sacred moments into a deep learning experience—one in which they might look inside and glimpse a bit of their radiance—was overwhelming.
I contemplated what I might say…the stories I might tell… and the tears and emotions that would surely show them the depth of my care and concern. I recalled words from Thich Nhat Hanh and his metaphor of the master gardener who could see flowers in the midst of compost. I searched for the perfect reflections from Dr. Rachel Remen, who, in the course of her work with those dying of cancer, discovered the power and meaning that can emerge even from life’s most horrific moments. I even brought a few written words that flowed from my heart in the aftermath of the death of Dylan Wagner and Dakota. I recounted hundreds of ways these words and stories might help the teens peer into their own lives, even with the moments of excruciating pain and heartache, and glimpse the magnificence available on the other side of the journey into hell.
As the evening progressed, I felt lost and confused. The teens brought forth their wisdom, and shared their stories, and I felt nearly a deaf mute. The hundreds of thoughts that coursed through me that afternoon were elusive. The tears and emotions that would show the depth of my love and concern were simply unavailable in those moments. I went home devastated. I felt as though I had let the participants down. Even worse, I felt I let down the Teen Directors who have so much respect for me that they entrusted me with these moments. At the very least I let myself down.
The teens come to the Thursday night meetings to reconnect over games, experiences and exercises—most of which are fun. To expect them to spend a precious evening on a difficult, emotional topic is a great deal to ask. The least I could have given them was some deep insight into the meaning of life. Some small awakening would perhaps be adequate compensation for a somber evening. That wisdom is inside me; I feel it welling up even in this very moment. But in those moments, it was simply not available. We spoke that evening about the moments in life in which we feel a sense of worthlessness. I went home that night fighting those very feelings within.
So, Megan, Jack, Molly and Aaron, I am sorry if I let you down. My intentions were fueled by care, concern and love. I was simply unable to let you and the participants see deeply into the soul that held them tightly that night…unavailable to me and to all of you.
You may have left me in charge, but life had another lesson in store.