Jan 082016
 

From the January Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The theme of this issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine is a 50-year vision for the community. In 2008, Batavia rebuilt the William J. Donovan Bridge which spans the Fox River connecting east and west Wilson Street. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my future counterpart, for a time-capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt in the next century:

Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,

It is a challenge to speak to my counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy have been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.

So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.

We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.

Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.

So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. And while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.

I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.

Postscript: Seven years later I see little reason to soften my critique of our culture of isolation. We have hundreds more digital channels into which we can tune and remain observers, rather than participants in human drama. Dialogue is prepared for us, relieving us of the need to find our own genuine, loving, but elusive, words to offer solace and comfort. Then, when lives unfold and we find ourselves in the presence of devastating loss and suffering, we are amateurs at being human. We search for words we learned from script writers, because we cannot discern our own authentic, unique and vulnerable end to the story. We can and must do better…we have 93 years left in which to learn how. I pray we begin today.

Aug 052014
 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner

In an interview with Peter Block many years ago I asked about the nature of our gifts. “We’re blind to our capacities. If you ask people what their strengths are, the list they come up with is pathetic. It’s crude and immature. ‘I’m hard-working…I like people…I’m loyal…I’m a good problem solver.’ Ask them their weaknesses and, oh God, you get poetry. They go on and on like an artist.”

When I announced I was leaving my position as Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, myriad questions arose from friends and colleagues. “Are you retiring?” “What’s next?” “Do you have another job?”

The answers I offered seemed feeble in this culture of plans, to-do lists and 5-year goals. I tried to explain I was not looking for a job, I was in search for my calling…my vocation. I was looking for that place to which God had always called me; a place that was simultaneously unknown and feared.

But how could I find that place? I felt rudderless and lost. I had few models of those who sought that space, unique for each human, where their deep gladness met the world’s great need.

I took comfort and direction from the wisdom I learned from improvisational pianist Michael Jones. The gifts of his music came so easily and naturally, he felt anyone could sit at a keyboard and play. So it is with each of us. When confronted with the truth of our gifts, if we don’t say it out loud, there is that internal voice of denial. “It’s no big deal. Anyone could do that,” we hear ourselves proclaiming. We assume the person speaking is just being polite because what they see in us is nothing special.

If I have wealth, it emanates from the love and care so many have shown me. After years running the fireworks, honoring the victims of September 11, exploring the fissures that so often separate us and showing up with authenticity and vulnerability, I have many truth-tellers in my life. I set out to find those who knew me well and would speak with honesty. I approached, told them the story of Michael Jones and explained how difficult it is for each of us to see our own unique gifts. Everyone understood the depth and meaning of that message. Then I asked if they would tell me what they saw in me that I was unable, or unwilling, to see in myself.

Being vulnerable in public does not take nearly the courage it takes to be vulnerable with ourselves. When I sit with a person who knows and cares about me—a truth-teller—I have to quiet the voice that wishes to deny; the one that screams “NO! Don’t you understand, what you think you see in me see is no big deal. Anyone could do that.” To deny what they see is to disrespect a person who, in love and generosity, is offering the greatest gift they can—a mirror into my own heart and soul. To deny is, perhaps, to disrespect the very voice of God.

One of the most telling phrases came from a woman who I helped as she struggled to start a small business. As I told her the tale of Michael Jones and asked if she would reflect on what she saw in me, she stopped me mid-sentence, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’ll tell you now. You listen and then you speak. I know because that is what you did for me.”

So in honor of all those who so generously spoke of my gifts, here is what I heard. I do listen to the world broadly. I listen to the stories and wisdom of the thousands of people who have reached out on the suicide hotline. I have listened through the wisdom of the hundreds of authors who have so generously gifted us with their perspectives. I have listened to the yearnings of members of my community who long for their stories to be heard. I have listened to hundreds of teens in Operation Snowball who struggle to find their identity and place in the world. I have listened to my heart as I try to make sense of the cacophony I often experience in the world.

Then, as I listen, I draw what I have heard into the experience that is my life, and through my own sense of truth, and speak to the world in the nuances that come through me. I try to honor those who tell me I have a gift to say what they have felt, but been unable to put into words.

And, with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, quieting that voice of denial, I believe I do these things well.

Mar 282014
 

Note: The following is a letter I wrote for Neighbors of Batavia Magazine in 2008 when I was Executive Director of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce. I found it recently and decided to share it on my blog.

A new book has left me haunted, and keeps me wondering about the proper role of the Chamber of Commerce. We are charged with improving the local economic climate, but, if improving that climate just means more business…more customers…more commerce…more activity, perhaps I’m in the wrong job.

The book is entitled loneliness. The capitalization—or lack thereof—is accurate, and telling. When we’re lonely, it leaves us feeling very small in a large and complex world. By leaving the title in lower-case, the authors insure that even book itself seems smaller and less pretentious.

“However wealthy and technologically adept our societies have become, beneath the surface we are the same vulnerable creatures who huddled together against the terrors of thunderstorms sixty thousand years ago.” As I read this statement, I couldn’t help but juxtapose it against the modus operandi of some of the great TV heroes of my generation. The Lone Ranger, for example, saved the day by revealing that he, and he alone, possessed, and knew how to unleash, the silver bullet.

I had a conversation recently with a Chamber member. She expressed her regret at missing a Chamber event—the demands of her job, and the mountains of work she needed to scale, were simply too great to permit time away from her desk. She has 4-weeks vacation this year, and has yet to take even one day. Every year she is sure the pressure and the expectations can’t possibly increase…only to be proven wrong when the new year struts confidently through her door. The look in her eyes was painful from my vantage point…I can only imagine how it felt from hers. Every time I see her, she too is huddled against the terrors…but she is huddled alone.

So why does the book haunt me? A tool near the beginning shows that I score relatively high on the loneliness scale and one of the key conclusions of the authors’ extensive research is that loneliness appears to be as much a cause of deteriorating health and early death as smoking, poor diet or lack of exercise.

It is no accident that the subtitle for the Chamber’s monthly newsletter is “For the life of your business…and the business of your life.” Once again I am reminded that far too often the business of my life is ill-defined, poorly conceived, and too often simply an afterthought.

Feb 102014
 

Note: The following will appear in the March/April edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. It serves as my transition from Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce to…well, that remains uncertain.

     Years ago, Ram Das wrote a book entitled Still Here. In spite of having left the Chamber of Commerce, I am still here in Neighbors of Batavia magazine. Publishers Tim and Kate Sullivan have graciously asked me to continue. Showing up in this place, authentically and emotionally, has become an integral part of my life, and I am profoundly grateful for this sanctuary. This work serves as a bridge on my path from the past to an uncertain and indistinct future. To anyone who has expressed appreciation for these words, thank you as well. Your affirmations help me discern my path.
     My decision to leave the Chamber arrived unexpectedly late last year, but the clarity with which I reached that crossroad was undeniable. I simply could no longer remain the community’s chief spokesperson for business. In leaving, one of the first questions I face is, “So, what’s next?” The fact that I don’t know surprises many. Why leave a position, without an alternate landing pad on my flight plan? I’m not sure.
     From the start, I was the most unlikely of Chamber executives. Truth be known, I don’t care about the measures of success typically saddled upon such a position. Did we, in 10 years, brighten the economic environment? Did we sell more…make more money? Are there more businesses in Batavia…fewer empty store fronts? These would be measures of success for the traditional economic development professional, but in ten years, I never knew, nor did I care about, the answers to such inquiries. Centuries hence, it will not have mattered that we sold one more trinket, or put one more dollar into the bank.
    What will matter to our progeny hundreds of years in the future? I don’t know that either, but here are some thoughts…
     Are we better human beings today than we were yesterday? Do we care more…love more…discern more…respect more? Are we wiser and more insightful? Do we act with honesty, integrity and authenticity? Have we learned to ask questions that truly matter? Have we found our rightful place here in this place? I don’t know if we have made progress on these measures of our humanness, but of these I care deeply. In my ten years as head of the Chamber, I was always far more concerned about the business of people’s lives than I was about the lives of their businesses.
     The human species, as well, faces many crossroads. In my heart-of-hearts I believe we are staring over a precipice. As we move into the future it is not what we do…it is who we are that will determine if we fall precipitously from the heights, or take flight into a humane future in which we will come to discover prosperity that is stunning in its simplicity, yet beneficent beyond our imagination. It is to that quest to which I hope to turn my attention. What will be the manner and mode of my journey? Of that I am uncertain.

     In the journey of life, we face unexpected crossroads. They can be a time of fear and confusion…when prosperity seems elusive and uncertain. Nevertheless, we sometimes need to leap, build our wings on the way down and trust that prosperity is abundant if we are willing to recognize it.
     The subtitle of Ram Das’ book is Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. While I am thankful for my continued good health, I am aging and changing. More decades are behind me than ahead. But perhaps, if I pay attention and live with evermore honesty, integrity and authenticity, I can discover my vocation and an even more prosperous life on the path ahead than the one I have already traversed.
    Over the years, I ended many Chamber events by wishing those in attendance “Godspeed on your journey,” without knowing its origins and meaning. The word Godspeed comes from the Middle English phrase God spede…“May God prosper you.” For perhaps the very first time, with humility and gratitude, I am wishing myself Godspeed on my journey…and I invite you to do the same for yourself.
Aug 172013
 
Note: I wrote the following piece for the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, but thought it might be of interest to the readers of my blog
I’ve been accused of focusing too much on images of death, but bear with me, you just might find the questions I am about to ask confusing and irritating enough to be useful.
What if the greatest challenge to your organization is that everyone expects it to be immortal?
We race books like Built to Last to the best seller list because we expect organizations and institutions to be impervious to the vagaries of imperfect economies and unpredictable politics.
To be sure, we are in awe of human creations that survive the limits of our fragile lives. I recall the wonderment of experiencing a few of the celebrated cathedrals of Europe.
But what if organizations are more valuable as organic, less stable, human creations? Consider human mortality. (Here is where I estrange those troubled by thoughts of death). It is no secret that, as people age, they become more aware of their mortality and begin to ask questions about what their time here might have meant. Conversely, if we were immortal, the need to make every passing moment a thing of beauty becomes less imperative. There would be plenty of time tomorrow—and the infinite tomorrows beyond that—to accomplish something of depth and meaning.
So what about your organization. I assume it exists to accomplish something of depth and meaning. To create products and services that add value to peoples’ lives…offer meaningful employment…make the world better, safer or more beautiful…or just to create wealth (however you define that easily misunderstood word).
Does it change the mission, vision and values you hold dear if you knew the institution you are building will, with no possibility of reprieve, cease to exist in five years? Even if it doesn’t alter the words, does it change their urgency? Does your heart skip a beat as you ponder how you must now turn those words into results prior to some uncompromising deadline? What if, as a result, mission, vision and values became more important than next quarter’s net income?
These questions occurred to me on one of my many journeys afoot. As the images flew, I began to ask how mortality might change my view of the Batavia Chamber. How might our goals and priorities change if the Board had to disband the Chamber at age 65 in the year 2018?
The Chamber’s purpose is to create a dynamic culture where business and community enhance one another. How might we renew our effort if we had only five years. Our vision is for Batavia to be a destination for people to grow themselves, their family, their business and their community. If that became the Chamber’s destination in a mere five years, what must we do differently this afternoon…and tomorrow? With a mission to advocate for, build relationships with, and educate our members for the benefit of the community, how should we redouble our efforts and set different priorities?
I know…this all has little meaning because our institutions are build to last. But you are not, so from your perspective, the organization you now run or support will only last a few more years. With that awareness to the fore, is there something you might do differently knowing it truly is a matter of life & death?

 

Jun 032012
 

 

Note: in 2008, Batavia rebuilt the Wilson Street Bridge which spans the Fox River. The Fox River severs our community into its east and west, and the bridge plays an important role in keeping us connected. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my counterpart. It was placed in a time capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt once again in 100 years.
Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,
It is a challenge to speak to your counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy has been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.
So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.
We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.
Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.
So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. So while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.
I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.
Feb 032012
 
At the end of a very successful, and completely redesigned, Chamber event, I turned to a member of the Board and told him I felt much of the success emanated from having turned many of the evening’s details over the young man who was emcee. “You should do that more often!” he suggested. The lightness of the moment did not ameliorate the painful way the comment pierced my psyche with its implication that I am otherwise too controlling. I need to tease apart, and try to understand, what the comment means, and how I will use it to move forward.
Having planned and executed hundreds of events in my life—everything from small, casual lunches to community events capturing the attention of tens of thousands, I have long wandered the hallways that define event planning and project management.
There are many doors that can be traversed in moving from concept to completion. Some lead into rooms filled with riches. They included “vision”, “mission”, “goals”, “values”, “teamwork”, “planning” and “attention to detail”.
There are other doorways labeled in less-flattering ways. “Overly-controlling”, “my way or the highway” and “closed to new ideas”. These are the rooms one is not supposed to visit along the journey. But I wonder?
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games were organized under the attentive eye of Peter Victor Ueberroth. Through his leadership, those games became the first privately financed Games and resulted in a surplus of nearly $250 million that supported youth and sports activities across the United States. Compare that to the Montreal Games just eight years earlier that left that city with debt that burdened its citizens for 30 years. For reimagining the financial foundation of the Games, and perhaps even rescuing them from ruin, Ueberroth was awarded the Olympic Movement’s highest honor: the Olympic Order in gold. He was also named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1984.
In the last few months, the creative genius of Steve Jobs, founder and visionary behind Apple computer, has been splashed across every medium of communication imaginable, including those that wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Jobs’ vision.
But if you read reports of these two visionaries, they traversed all transoms I have seen along the hallways I have traveled. Each used vision, mission, values and teamwork in extraordinary ways. But make no mistake, for each, much of their vision was so clear and inviolate—contained so much personal passion—there was to be no compromise.
I once had the great joy of spending time with Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa International, considered to be one of the greatest businesspersons of the 20thcentury. Similar to Peter and Steve, he founded Visa on a vision and set of values on which he simply refused to compromise. When I asked him why, he said, “I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand something in me would die.”
I do not, nor will I ever, deserve to even be in the shadow of the likes of Peter, Steve or Dee. But in my own very, very small way, I have plied my creativity to help midwife a future slightly brighter than the past that preceded it. There have been many times I have crossed the thresholds of the politically correct doorways. And many times I borrowed from the rooms generally banned, and, when standing my ground on those things I felt were critical, I wielded the less desirable weapons of “overly-controlling” and “closed to new ideas”.
So let me return to the comment that sparked this discourse. I have a vision and set of values upon which the event in question has been built over the 8 years it has been under my watch; principles upon which I would never compromise. I turned the details of the evening over to our young emcee because I have worked with him enough to know he truly understood. And while he built the evening in new a creative ways, the foundation was never under attack. If “You should do that more often” means allowing for creativity within the boundaries defined by the vision and values I believe are essential for success, I am in full agreement. If I allowed those values to be violated, however, I too would feel as though “something in me would die.”
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 032011
 

 

Note: I wrote the following for the December issue of the Batavia Chamber newsletter. And while it speaks directly to issues related to entrepreneurs, I think the message of how we prioritize the moments of our lives has broader meaning.
In the context of our lives, even five minutes is perhaps too much.
Two critical activities for any entrepreneur are networking and proposal writing. Recent conversations about both called me to think more deeply about our lives and the moments that constitute them.
“The founder of BNI says 6-1/2 hours per week is about the right amount of time to spend networking. What do the rest of you think?” That question began a conversation at a recent Chamber meeting.
The statement is, in isolation, meaningless. It’s like saying $60,000 per year is enough money, 75 years is sufficient for a lifetime or 5 inches of rain per month is too much. If a child dying of cancer requires treatments costing $10,000 per month…or a scientist publishes a seminal work at age 80…or a tropical rainforest supports untold valuable species, arbitrary limits are not only meaningless, they leave us practically and emotionally destitute.
The metrics I use, and the boundaries I place on them, must be considered in the context of what the world needs from the time I spend on this planet.
If it seems plebian to compare business networking with illness, seminal works or the planet’s ecology, I disagree. Steve Jobs said that awareness of the limits of his life added meaning to every moment he spent. If your life, and the lives of those around you, is left unimproved by the time you spend together, then five minutes per week is too much. If, on the other hand, you are facile at making connections that move you and the world forward, then perhaps 60 hours per week is not nearly enough.
Only you can decide what it really means to move you and the world forward. Few people understood this better than Mike Jacobson, a former Chamber member stolen from us by pancreatic cancer. He never left an event with fewer than three people he could contact in the ensuing days. It was mostly about business, but Mike’s love for Batavia was deeply embedded in his definition of what it meant to move forward. He understood that the emotional content of his journey outweighed the practical.
What then of proposals? I once had a friend who claimed he never wrote a proposal until the client agreed, in advance, it would be accepted.
A proposal is an agreement about how the joint worlds of writer and client will improve when signed and implemented. Whether we want to admit it or not, proposals are often accepted or rejected before a single word is committed to paper. Too often, the phrase “Send me a proposal” is used to indicate the conversation is over—no agreement has been made that will satisfy the practical and the emotional needs of the client.
When I began searching for words to etch the boundaries of networking and proposal writing, I imagined the tasks as only tangentially related. To the extent they are viewed as emotionless steps in the process of creating business, we miss something important about life. Each is an agreement with those around us about how we can jointly move humanity forward both practically and emotionally. If the time we spend is aimed at anything less, then indeed, even five minutes is too much.

 

Jun 292011
 
The following piece was published today in Batavia Business, the monthly newsletter of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.
 
“You were a little snappish” a friend told me, with a smile and glint in her eye, after a recent Chamber Board meeting. She was right…but I was hoping it wasn’t that obvious. While I may owe her an explanation, I actually owe it to myself.
A recent European trip to visit our daughter was intended to be no more than a tourist’s sojourn. As it turns out, the journey had unexpected consequences. Allow me to illuminate a few pieces of a puzzle that is emerging in my life—and then try to assemble them into some kind of coherent, yet still incomplete story.
One piece contains portraits of anonymous stone masons from the 13th century who spent their entire lives shaping and laying stones that became a cathedral in Nantes, France; an edifice that would not be completed for more than 20 generations. I stood in awe of their craftsmanship, and their dedication to a vision they had no hope of seeing to completion. Their contribution was essential…yet their identity forever lost.
While in Europe, and on my return, a second puzzle piece emerged from two intellectual excursions. In Europe I began a trek through a thousand-page volume called Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Since our return, I have been enjoying an 18-hour series of lectures entitled Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Professor Grant Hardy of the University of North Carolina.
The puzzle piece that forms as I study humanity’s wisdom traditions is that, like the stone masons of Nantes, untold millions of deeply philosophical humans contributed to the ideas that define and gird human wisdom and understanding, but for the vast majority, their contribution too, is essential, and their identity forever lost.
The third puzzle piece is defined by my experience of being immersed in cultures decidedly different from the one I left behind. As you walk the streets of European cities, it is common to hear a dozen languages—and see as many modes of dress—within a few short blocks. I became aware of just how much I don’t know about the world.
I arrived in Europe with some sense of being wise and worldly…and arrive in this moment having been reminded of my ignorance and naïveté.
The puzzle pieces strewn in front of me have something to do with the existential angst of being human. Most of us hope we will leave something behind that future generations will experience with admiration. I strive to make something of my time on this planet; from talking with people struggling not to end their lives, to teens struggling to understand theirs. Even the struggle to put these few words on paper is part of my search for meaning.
And yet, having come face-to-face with authors of our wisdom traditions and creators of monuments to human imagination, it is difficult not to view your own contribution with a skeptical eye. “Is this the best I could have done?”
 The roots of this story are nourished by a growing awareness of my own mortality and imminent loss of my identity to future generations. Until I come to terms with that angst, I will likely remain “a little snappish.”