Dec 052019
 

At first, it ended tragically.

At a recent Operation Snowball* retreat, the teens wrote a skit entitled “Asking for Help.” In the first performance, one of the teens was struggling mightily with challenges life mercilessly hurled in her path. Despite her overwhelming heartbreak and pain, she never asked for help. Those around her, even if they noticed, did little in response to her subtle cries for love and support. Alone and confused, without the comfort of family and friends, her life ended in tragedy.

I was asked to facilitate the ensuing discussion, so I rose and asked the eighty or so teens what went wrong. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired. They knew she needed help and were saddened that those around her let her down. The failure brought some in the room to tears.

We talked about the many ways we can pick up on a cry for help. Obviously, when friends tell us they are in trouble, it’s easy. But often, cries are silent and subtle. “If we see unexpected changes in mood, it would be important to reach out,” one teen suggested. Another counseled “If a friend’s habits change unexpectedly, it is never a mistake to ask if they are okay.” I reminded them, even if we see a stranger who appears to be sad, we can always offer assistance or just a smile. “Remember, when someone needs support, you are not responsible to solve their problems. You only have to help get them to someone who can.”

The actors replayed the final moments of the skit. But this time, the struggling teen’s friends picked up on her sadness and anxiety and insisted she come with them to get help. That version was truly lifesaving.

As we discussed the second performance, we agreed it is difficult to ask for help, especially for teens. We recounted many reasons. “I’m the strong one. If my friends and family find out I am struggling…they’d be disappointed.” “My father is out of work and we have no insurance.” “I don’t want to be a burden on others.” “My parents are under a lot of stress because my uncle is dying from cancer.” “My sister is already in counseling. I can’t tell my parents I need it too.” “My mother is a single parent. She is stressed enough already.” The list is endless.

But then, one teen spoke up. “I think many people, especially teens, don’t ask for help because they don’t think they deserve it.” That nearly brought me to my knees.

An hour before the session began, as I reflected on the upcoming events, I recalled a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier. He asked if I believed in fairness. The question was startling, nevertheless, I assured him I did. “If you were at a dinner and the dessert tray had only two pieces of the pie you wanted, and one was clearly larger that the other, which would you take?” Since the question didn’t require deep contemplation. I told him I’d likely take the smaller one. “Always?” he pressed. This time I thought, but only for a moment. “Yes, probably.” “Ah,” he shot back, “then you really don’t believe in fairness, do you?”

I repeated that ancient exchange to the students and adults in front of me. I then recounted the many reasons we don’t ask for help. Is it possible, I asked, that, when life is dispensing love and support, we’re too willing to give others the larger slice? “It’s unreasonable,” I acknowledged, “to always be first in line, but, if we continually put ourselves last, perhaps we really don’t believe in fairness.”

We tell ourselves it is better to give than to receive. I believe that. But, if we believe in offering love, kindness, and generosity to all humans, then doesn’t the person we see every morning in the mirror, deserve to receive an equal share from us as well?

*Operation Snowball is a teen leadership program for which I am an adult volunteer.

Oct 042019
 

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

The morning of September 12, the world of Neighbors magazines was torn apart. Kate Sullivan, who, with her husband Tim, published Neighbors of Batavia magazine, was ripped from our lives. The vision they shared—helping communities discover their heart and soul—has had a profound impact on Batavia. A colleague, who new Kate well, observed that she never made friends, she simply expanded her family. We will all miss her greatly.

In the last issue of Neighbors of Batavia, based on Bill McKibben’s insights in his recent book, Falter, I touched on three trends—environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering—each of which will dramatically alter our future. (This essay is also a recent blog entitled “Opening Door and Windows – Part 1)

In that essay, I suggested that if we were in a burning building, and the occupants were in denial, we could open doors and windows so, upon realization of the fire, people could escape. What might it mean, I asked, to “open doors and windows” in our communities, so we might escape the approaching unintended consequences? Upon reflection, I realize that metaphor fails. As opposed to a burning building, what if there is no escape as heat begins to scorch our souls?

I am reminded of a long-ago moment as I ascended an ancient volcano that now forms a portion of the island of Oahu. In Hawai’i, little land is wasted when hillsides are transformed into neighborhoods. Narrow stretches of parched, red dirt, punctuated by occasional tufts of dry grass, are often all that separate homes from roadways. As streets wind their way up the mountainside, there is typically little safety for a lone pedestrian, with cars flying by on their way to who-knows-where.

One afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman tending to the small patch of earth that separated his home from the rest of the world. His was garden-green and lined with a row of delicate flowers—a small, yet beautiful, oasis. I walked the opposite curb so as not to trample his creation.

As I approached, he looked up with a smile, pointed to his “lawn” and said, “Please walk here…it’s safer.” To this kindly gentleman, a stranger’s safety was more important than the stretch of nature to which he tended so carefully.

Of the effects sure to erupt from our creations, the most devastating will likely be massive human dislocation. Environmental disruption will force millions to flee ancestral homes and search for livelihoods in distant lands. Artificial Intelligence will decimate traditional careers and throw additional millions onto the street in search of new ways to feed their families. When terrified neighbors, or fragile families from distant lands, find their way to my doorstep, what then? Should I fear for my soul if I someday choose my needs over theirs; if my own terror overwhelms my obligation to clothe the naked and feed the poor?

In those moments, what would it mean, for me to turn to strangers in need, look them in the eye and say, “Please walk here…it’s safer”? What am I prepared to give up in order to protect the humanity of another? How much should I be expected to give? As I face such heart-wrenching decisions, how courageous and vulnerable am I willing to be?

As this war rages inside me, pitting me and my safety against my yearning to help others, I am reminded of the wisdom given to us by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish tradition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions tear at me.

Then, as I recall recent events, I realize I needn’t rely on ancient wisdom. Guidance is close at hand—the path illumined by the life of Kate Sullivan. Perhaps I needn’t help neighbors or those from distant lands. In those moments, I simply need to expand my family.

Mar 232019
 

When grace enters my life unexpectedly, the moment often becomes a font of knowledge and wisdom.

Operation Snowball is an organization for high school students who want to live healthy lives by keeping an informed and respectable distance between themselves and drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Twice each year a three-day retreat is convened for a hundred or more participants. I recently had the privilege of participating in my 26th such weekend.

The keynote speaker Friday afternoon was newly elected Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain. I have heard the Sheriff speak and I am inspired by his leading-edge ideas and philosophies related to law enforcement. On that day, however, I had no expectation of inspiration, just thoughts about teens, drugs and alcohol.

However, Sheriff Hain prefaced his remarks by retelling his journey from a young boy of twelve to Sheriff of Kane County. You see, and he admitted it was the first time he told this story in a very public venue, when he was 12, his father walked out on him and his mother. In that moment, as they cried, he realized the imminent choice that would chart the course of his life. He could, he told us, be destroyed by the abandonment, or use it as a lever to propel him forward toward a life of meaning. Thankfully for all of us, he chose the latter. From that moment forward, every significant decision he faced became another chance to prove, to himself and the world, he would use his time on this planet to make a difference.

Sheriff Hain did speak of drugs, alcohol, and law enforcement, and, following his remarks, there were many questions from the teens about a life in criminal justice. But the questions that most caused the Sheriff to pause, were those about what it meant for his father to abandon him and his mother.

I have long thought about the pain in our lives and who we might become with or without it. With this unique opportunity right in our midst, I raised my hand and asked, “Sheriff, if you could, would you go back to that moment when you were 12 and re-write history? Would you write a story in which your father remained in your life?” He paused for a long moment, then he looked at the 100 of us in the room and admitted that that moment made him who he became. He then said, “As strange as it may seem, that event was a gift in my life, and I would not go back and change it.”

I think many in the room were stunned by that revelation, but I was overcome with joy. Not joy over his father’s departure, but joy for the gift the Sheriff had just bestowed. Over the past 13 years in Snowball, I have heard hundreds of stories from teens who live through horrendous pain. There were many in the room that Friday afternoon who had lived through moments as painful as the Sheriff; some are living lives even more raw and chaotic. I thanked him for helping us understand that those moments, as horrible and as unfair as they are, can become defining moments in our lives. Those moments can overwhelm us…they can also propel us.

It is a story I have heard thousands of times answering calls on the National Lifeline. Often, after witnessing a human being in inordinate pain, I will ask, “While I would take this suffering away in an instant if I could, I cannot. However, are you learning something about what it means to be human that you can use to help others?” Often, the response is “You have no idea.”

Sheriff Hain, your ideas about law enforcement inspire me, but this past weekend I was moved by your strength and humanity. The gift from your life, became one in ours. I am deeply grateful for you giving us that unexpected moment of grace.

Feb 042019
 

If who I become in the world is determined by the decisions I make, the more I improve their accuracy and efficacy, the better I am as a person, physically and emotionally.

The brain is a marvelous, complex organ, and, while we wish it would make every decision with perfection, it often lets us down. Decisions are clouded by emotions, and our neuropathways often turn simple patterns into complex, inappropriate stories. The human brain can be overwhelmed by choice, overly influenced by recent events, and confused by imperfect memories.

Knowing the limitations of our neurology, humans have always welcomed means of easing the stress of decision making. Over the centuries, we have developed extraordinary tools that turn data into useful information to overcome the brain’s foibles.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has begun to compliment and extend human intelligence. Search engines place limitless information at our fingertips and distill it to that which it deems most useful. We are grateful for ratings and “likes” that point us in the direction of optimal products and services.

Today, nearly every professional has diagnostic equipment to improve decision making. Mechanics plug cars into AI to discover failures and find remedies. Doctors have diagnostic databases built from tens of millions of human ailments that insure their prognostications are increasingly accurate, continuously updated, and universally comprehensive. Farmers rely on AI to choose crops and discern how best to plant and nurture them. We are more successful and healthier as a result of these intelligences.

Advances in AI continue to improve decision making. Autonomous vehicles not only discern optimal routes to deliver us to a destination, they eliminate thousands of minute, stressful decisions we would otherwise have to make along the way. Nanotechnology in our bloodstream will soon continuously monitor health, report every abnormality, and suggest protocols without us having to fret when some symptom unexpectedly appears. Since these advances will make us safer, improve our health, and extend lifespans, we will gladly accept the guidance.

Until recently, epidemics were incrementally recognized as patients walked through doctors’ doors, but identification and confirmation often took weeks or months. Search engines, on the other hand, can begin to detect epidemics within hours based on millions of symptom inquiries. If AI had access to discussions contained in emails and texts, it could identify them even faster. Would we trade privacy for swifter remedies? If it means saving millions of lives, we might make that choice.

In the more distant future, AI will do more than diagnose physical dispositions. Based on posts, searches, and live interactions, AI is already getting to know our rational and emotional proclivities even better than we know them ourselves. AI will eventually help us make better decisions by storing and analyzing the infinite details of our lives, and it will not be clouded by emotions, confused by imperfect memory, or overwhelmed by excessive choice.

Before long, AI may be the preferred method to choose partners. We already use dating sites, and information about potential mates, to simplify and improve choice. Would we refuse to be better informed if AI, with its nearly infinite knowledge of us and others, really can find our perfect match? At election time, with comprehensive knowledge of our desires and hopes, and, based on exhaustive analysis of the candidates, why not let AI suggest how we should vote? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to circumvent the emotional stress of making these challenging decisions on our own?

If each of these incremental advancements helps us make better decisions and improves our lives, will we refuse? Was there a frightening juncture on this trek towards optimal decision-making beyond which you would not traverse? If so, recall the experiments with frogs sitting in water, the temperature of which is rising. The temperature increase is so incremental, the frogs remain, even as the water boils.

If my humanity is determined by the quality of decision-making, and AI accomplishes that more effectively than my limited neurobiology, what becomes of me when I surrender? Do I even need to exist? In this moment I feel incrementally irrelevant. It frightens me and breaks my heart.

Dec 072018
 

There are Universes in our midst, but assumptions can prevent us from experiencing their extraordinary wisdom, beauty, and elegance.

What number would you multiply by itself to arrive at -1? Early mathematicians assumed such a number was useless. They referred to it in a derogatory way as imaginary.

A visual depiction of the Mandelbrot Set

In the 18th century, mathematicians relinquished that assumption and began to give structure and meaning to imaginary numbers. They used the letter “i ” to denote the square root of -1. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that “super computers” enabled Benoit Mandelbrot to peer into a yet undiscovered universe. Named for him, the Mandelbrot Set is one of the most famous images in all of Mathematics. You can expand the Mandelbrot Set billions of times and elemental structures emerge again and again. (Play the short video at https://youtu.be/9G6uO7ZHtK8, listen to the music and imagine yourself peering into eternity.) We are blind to this breathtaking universe until we surrender the assumption that the square root of -1 is meaningless.

At the time Benoit Mandelbrot was peering into infinity, I was teaching Mathematics at a private boarding school near Princeton, New Jersey. I lived in the dorm and was advisor to several freshmen.

One Spring evening, David, one of my advisees, came to my apartment looking sad and frightened. He was about to complete French 1 with an elderly, kindly member of the faculty…one whose demands were minimal. That afternoon, David discovered he would be learning French 2 from an excellent, very demanding teacher. “Mr. Breisch,” he whispered in tears, “you have to let me out of her class. I’m not prepared. I’ll fail!” My heart broke, but since David was one of my (favorite) algebra students, I knew him to be diligent, intelligent and determined. I was certain he would succeed. In one of the most heart-wrenching moments of my time as a teacher, I looked him in the eye, told him of my confidence and that I would not let him shy away from this challenge. I sent him back to his room alone and in tears. The following year, after each French test, David returned to my apartment and we would, together, celebrate his success.

I have lost track of David, but my hope is that, by surrendering assumptions about his inability, he began to peer into a breathtaking personal universe that was, until that moment, inaccessible to him.

Not long ago, I spoke with a young woman suffering from lupus, a disease that could end her life. Her mother, she told me, constantly lamented the myriad experiences her daughter would never enjoy—everything from a glass of wine to having children. The young woman explained that, while she sometimes finds the disease difficult, she had a deep appreciation for the life that resulted from it. She tried to find words that would enable her mother to witness the wholeness of her life rather than its perceived brokenness. One day, when her Mother once again began to focus on all her daughter would miss, this young woman turned to her and said, “Mom, what you refuse to see is all you have missed by not having lupus!”

It was a stunning moment. I felt as though this woman had given me new eyes. My old eyes, when in the presence of a person who may lack abilities, were blinded by assumptions of what they were missing in their lives. The eyes she gifted me, by surrendering those assumptions, began to see worlds that were always there, but to which I was blind—Universes in which others are not lacking in abilities; they are given capabilities, capacities and wisdom I can never have. By peering through their eyes, hearts and souls, I can experience wisdom, beauty, and elegance in Universes in which it is I who is less-than-able in very profound ways.

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jul 302018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 242018
 

I am dying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 282017
 

The call came from a young man in a parked car. He was unmerciful. “I am a horrible, evil person. I don’t deserve to live.” I asked if he would be willing to share what led to such fierce condemnation.

Just before he left a nearby store, as he waited in the checkout line, something happened that put him “over the edge.” In a moment of frustration, he turned to the woman behind him in line and let loose an unkind remark. Now, near tears and overwhelmed at having relived the incident, he continued. “It’s not who I want to be! How could I have been so cruel to that poor woman. I hoped I was a better human being than that.” My heart broke for this young man in his deep regret and sadness.

He was a veteran; I was horrified to hear even a few details of what he witnessed while he served his country. I can’t even imagine how I might view the world differently had I lived through the horrors he recounted. Now, he was trying to create a post-military life. He was struggling in a relationship and stressed by his job and mounting bills. His parents were deceased, and he had no friends who could understand what he was going through. He felt totally alone. It became clear he was living his entire life “on the edge.”

When he told me again he felt himself a horrible, evil person, I stopped him with a question. “Do you want to be a person who is humbled and sorry, vowing to try harder next time, or would you rather be a person who dismisses his actions and doesn’t care.” Now in tears, he admitted the depth of his sorrow and how he was determined to try harder in the future. “So, while you disappointed yourself a moment ago—did not live up to the code of conduct you expect of yourself—in this moment, you are living into your highest expectations.” He paused and whispered, “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Is it also true,” I pressed, “that you learned from this painful experience? Do you think you will move into the next moments of your life a bit more compassionate, generous, and wise?” “I sure hope so. I will certainly try,” he replied.

Before the call ended, I told him how much I grieved for his self-doubt. In the short time we spoke, I had come to know him as a man who wanted so intensely to be perfect. “I am sorry for the mistake you made a few moments ago. Both of us wish it had not happened. But here’s the dirty little secret about being human,” I told him, “you will err again! When we fail, those moments are evidence of our humanness…not our inhumanity.”

Not long after that call, I was having coffee with a young friend who struggled through high school. He was active in Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer. Now in college, he still struggles. He admitted to the many times he, too, feels he is evil. I know this young man. He has a huge heart, filled with wisdom and compassion for everyone he meets. The word “evil” will never reside in anyone’s description of this young soul…save for his own.

As we spoke, I looked into his eyes and realized he could only witness a mistake as errant because he viewed the world through a heart molded of goodness. A person who is truly evil, would not have eyes that could see evil, nor a heart that could feel it.

In the end, we are, after all, only human. As much as I endeavor to turn every moment into one of worth and value, I know I will fail again and again. But when we are able to witness failures as evidence of our humanness, and endeavor to redeem ourselves in the future, our capacity for compassion, generosity, and wisdom expands. Those moments become proof of our growing goodness, not our inhumanity.

Sep 152017
 

A friend recently left her youngest son at college, and is struggling with the emotions erupting inside her. I was reminded of a piece I wrote many years ago when we took our son to college. (Posted previously in November of 2016.)

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”
                                          Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I wonder, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult?

When we took our son, David, to college many years ago, leaving him was harder than I imagined it would be. The morning after we returned home, I awoke early and could feel his absence weighing heavily on my heart. What made me so sad was the realization that the young man I would encounter in the future would be a different person. He would always be the son I love, but he would be my son in a different way—increasingly he would become be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow did not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I had known. Quite the contrary, I was in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he was becoming. I was so amazed that I often kidded him by telling him I was sure the hospital must have given us the wrong child!

So if the deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he became a man, then from where did it emanate? What I was coming to realize is that there was a second person to whom I needed to bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I had to, I came to discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I would always be available when he needed me, but the simple truth is that he would need me less. I would be less important—or maybe important in a different way—as he began to make his own way in the world.

And while I could love, and be inspired by, the young man we would welcome into the family, I was less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I could no longer treat David as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But could I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How could I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I didn’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he would inevitably face would not destroy him? Where would I find the strength to know that he really did have the wisdom to create his own life?

Saying adieu to the father who is over-protective, the one essential to his son’s success, the one who must protect him from the oft-scary world…that is a really long goodbye.

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