Dec 182014
 

Note: The following will be published in the January issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

His smile is huge and welcoming, and he has a personality to match. He admitted he is uncomfortable with hugs and tears, but on an Operation Snowball weekend, taking off the masks we wear to protect ourselves, and being vulnerable, is an invaluable part of the experience.

In spite of the tough veneer, there was a moment the façade unexpectedly slipped. As he spoke innocently of his family, he began to tell us of his birth-father—his parents had divorced many years earlier. “My Dad is my hero,” he began innocently enough, but as he continued his eyes welled up and he tried desperately to hold back the tears. “As a young man, he was in a gang—it’s part of the reason he and my mother split. But, about the time I was born, he straightened out his life. He works harder than anyone I know. I love him so much.” With that, he wiped the tears that made their way down his face.

“Have you ever told him what you just told us?” I asked. “I’ve tried,” he said. “It’s really hard, but sometimes as I’m leaving, I’ll turn and tell him I love him.” “No,” I pressed, “Have you ever looked him square in the eye and said ‘Dad, you are my hero. I love you more than I can even say.’” He stared at the floor and admitted he had not.

Why, when we see magnificence in another, especially one we love, do we frequently find it difficult to acknowledge? Perhaps it’s because a moment of affirmation requires vulnerability from both giver and receiver. When I am honored by another, it can trigger memories of the frailties I often believe define me. I can become embarrassed and confused in the face of sincere, caring affirmation and deflect the recognition…and in my inelegance, embarrass the person who only wants me to see something wonderful within.

What if, in an unexpectedly touching moment with his son, a formerly tough gang member, in confusion and embarrassment, blurted, “Don’t be silly, I’m not that great!” All the son might hear from the man he adores is the crushing implication he is silly.

Later that weekend, I sought out that young man. “At the risk of pushing too hard and being a pain in your backside, may I tell you a story?” “Sure,” he said with a curious smile.

“My daughter invited me to join her on a Snowball weekend when she was a sophomore in high school. Snowball changed my life and I am grateful beyond measure. At her last event as a senior, I pulled her aside one last time to tell her how thankful I was she invited me on this journey we shared. She looked me in the eye and said ‘Dad, I truly believe the reason I got involved was to bring you here. You are my gift to Snowball.’ I was stunned.”

“That was more than six years ago,” I continued, “yet, I remember that moment as if it was yesterday. I will take those words with me to my grave. If you tell your father how much you love and admire him, don’t be deterred if his initial reaction is tainted by confusion and embarrassment. In the end, I am certain he will, as well, carry your words with him until the day he dies.”

At the end of the weekend, that “tough” young man left a note for me in which he said I was the sweetest man on Earth and that he loved me. And now, despite my own embarrassment, tears are having their way with me.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I believe in always committing myself to more wholehearted living. So, as I move into the year 2015, I will try diligently to speak to those I love of the joy I find in their presence in my life, and try even more diligently, when told of their joy at my presence in their life, to acknowledge their affirmation with grace, gratitude and humility.

Aug 072013
 

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

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