Nov 302018
 

I am sad much of the time these days, and, as I reflect, it feels as though much of my sadness erupts from fear. I am frightened about a future rooted in an environment impregnated by discord, untruth, misconception. I fear we have become a body politic lacking the interest or will to seek wisdom, connection, and love. In a garden, manure is a magnificent fertilizer. However, the dung created by our war of words, rather than being nourishing and procreative, is toxic to the germination of ideas. Our body politic needs intensive care.

We seem to exist in a world in which few are willing to listen. Everyone, it seems, is willing to opine, but opinion lacking authentic, thoughtful curiosity is hollow. How might the world be different if every expression we utter ended in a question mark—either real or implied? What might emerge from our conversations if we were deeply eager to engage in inquiry-affirming dialogue?

Politics, it is often said, makes strange bedfellows. I recently read Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” As one of the most conservative republicans in the U.S. Senate, is a fair assumption the Senator and I would disagree greatly on the solutions to the problem. However, we are in full agreement on the root causes. In a recent interview on PBS, Sasse explains:

More and more people are processing their politics not primarily as what they’re for, but as a form of anti-tribe. What are we against?

And so, I think you see a willingness among the American public to accept more falsehoods than would have seemed normal at most moments in U.S. history, because people hear them as a kind of rhetoric that is mostly a framing of the other side and the things that we’re against.

We need a politics that isn’t chiefly that, isn’t chiefly against. We need a lot more ‘we’ and a lot less ‘them’.

In the end, I am left with a bit of hope when we who disagree, can peer together and gain some clarity on root causes. If we can follow that agreement and clarity with inquiry-affirming dialogue, and a profound interest in listening, perhaps we can find a fertile garden in which to propagate new ideas, and a new life-affirming future.

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.

Nov 162016
 

On a recent Operation Snowball retreat, I was deeply moved by a wise, kind and generous young man struggling to find himself within a difficult and heartbreaking life. When he and I spoke, I talked of the need for him, as he became an adult, to redefine his relationship with his parents. That conversation reminded me of a piece I wrote many years ago as our son left for college.

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”  

Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I have been wondering, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult.

We recently took our son to college to begin his freshman year. 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 encounter in the future will be a different person. He will always be the son I love, but he will be my son in a different way—increasingly he will be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow does not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I have known. Quite the contrary, I am in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he is becoming.

So if my deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he becomes a man, then from where does it emanate?

What I am coming to realize is that there is a second person to whom I must bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I must, I discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I’ll always be available when he needs me, but the simple truth is that he needs me less. I am less important—or maybe important in a different way—now that he is beginning to make his own way in the world.

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

Jun 282016
 

I began as I always do…“Thank you for calling the depression hotline. How can I help?” The young man at the other end sounded disappointed; he had hoped to discuss, not depression, but anger management.

He had just left a store and was sitting in his car, overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing. Moments earlier, he became frustrated in the checkout line. When his frustration got the best of him, he lashed out at a woman, letting loose some hurtful comments. He was deeply disappointed and judging himself unmercifully. “It’s not the person I want to be,” he explained in a voice near tears. What I could hear was his fear that unreasonable, unrestrained anger defined him. “This is the kind of thing I won’t let go of for weeks,” he admitted.

As we talked, I came to understand the complexity and confusion that defined his life. He faced many difficult decisions and emotional battles, yet had no one he could look to for support. He was an only child, his parents were both gone, and his wife simply did not understand. He felt abandoned and very alone. My heart broke for a young man crying out for some measure of comfort.

No one calls the hotline with profound feelings of self-disappointment and failure if they are not molded from a core of kindness, generosity and humanity. I asked if he would wish to be a person who regrets letting himself and the world down, or if he would rather be a person who acts without humanity and simply does not care? “I want to be the person who is deeply sorry,” he said without hesitation. “So, in this moment, you are being exactly the person you hope to be?” He paused and, with a bit of intrigue, admitted he was.

While he did not understand Buddhism in depth, he had been introduced to it when practicing meditation with a friend from Thailand. Reaching back to the Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I asked if he had learned something about himself as a result of losing his temper. “If something similar happens in the future, can you imagine being more gentle, kind and loving in that moment?” “Absolutely,” he said. “So you are a wiser, kinder, and more generous human being than you were even a few moments ago?” I pressed. “It never occurred to me to think of it that way,” he confessed, “but maybe I am.”

“I’m not suggesting you should ever intentionally hurt others in order to gain self-awareness, but, and I hate to break it to you, you are after all, only human. You will likely err again.”

In spite of our wish to always be kind, gentle, generous people, and in spite of our most heroic efforts, each of us will fail to live up to our expectations of self, time and time again. We can use moments of failure to define us as inadequate, horrible human beings, or they can afford unique insights into who we actually are, and who we wish to be. As Abraham Lincoln suggested we can allow ourselves be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”

As my new young friend began to grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom, I could feel the weight of the world lift ever so slightly from his overburdened shoulders. “You’re amazing!” he exclaimed near the end of our time together.

As time has allowed me to reflect, I would wish for one more moment with my young protégé. “First, it is you who is amazing my young friend. I can sense how much you strive for wisdom, goodness and generosity in the face of profound confusion and abject loneliness. Your immense humanity inspires me. Second, I have done little other than share a bit of insight that comes to us through the wisdom of the ages. I am simply thankful for having been able to reach for it when you needed it. Finally, I will not consider myself anything near amazing until I can hear in my own life the voice of self-compassion and love I am asking you to hear in yours.”

As these words appear, I am grateful to have this young man remind me the “better angels of our nature” are always inspiring.

Mar 262016
 

The dominant hues in the picture I painted of the young man on the phone were strength, perseverance, courage and determination. All he could see were dark pigments of failure, disappointment and weakness.

Sam (not his real name) was negotiating his senior year in high school. In junior high, he found himself in an unspeakably horrific hole. Nearly anything you wish to stuff into that hole was likely there tormenting him. He had lost himself, and I suspect, the world nearly lost him as well. Sometime during his sophomore year he realized he no longer wanted to be the person he saw himself becoming, so he clawed his way out of that hellhole. He rid himself of the enormous negative influences that kept him i015mprisoned, kicked numerous frightening habits, jettisoned most of his “friends,” and dedicated himself to his studies. Now, as a senior, he has good grades and is applying to several wonderful colleges.

I was so taken by him I told him I loved him, loved who he is and who he is becoming. He began to sob. I asked the source of the tears. “You’re the first person who ever told me they loved me.” That nearly ripped my heart out. But all Sam could see when he looked in the mirror was a failed young man who made countless, unforgivable mistakes. In his mind he feared that who he truly is, and always will be, is a failure.

In the figure above, the two squares highlighted by the arrows are—ready?—the exact same shade of gray. If you don’t believe me, put them side by side.

I find this a powerful metaphor. What if the two squares represent the differing portraits of Sam; that which I saw versus that to which Sam is witness? It’s the same person, but our views are so dramatically different…so incongruous…it’s hard to imagine we are picturing the same person.

So, from where do the two images of Sam—mine versus his—emerge?

I’m told John Keats once posited the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. As I reflect on my time with Sam, the palette with which I painted was of the heart. As we spoke, my heart broke open and the emerging masterpiece that was Sam simply appeared. He was a strong, courageous young man who had made many, forgivable mistakes. He is human after all.

The primary palette at Sam’s disposal was of the mind, tainted and dulled by the memory of failures, hurts and mistakes. As I painted, the canvas was not distorted by the foibles of his humanity. His was, so his brush was unable to capture the beauty and authenticity.

On another call a few weeks later, a young man announced he had a gun in his lap and intended to use it. From as far back as he could remember he was tormented physically, emotionally and sexually—from every quarter of his existence. The story was painful to hear—impossible to imagine as anyone’s reality. He felt worthless, hopeless and ready to end his unspeakable pain. I suggested the story he told emerged largely from the scars and hurts that filled his memory. I asked if a different story might emerge if he listened to his heart. When he glimpsed his world through his sensitive, complex and delicate heart, he tearfully told of his ability to change the lives of many other young people. Because of his deep understanding of the meaning of human existence, he could hold up a powerful mirror to others to help them see themselves in new ways. As our call ended, he happily put the gun away.

For too many, the canvas of our lives is distorted by memories of hurt, failure and scars. We are far more facile at opening our hearts and seeing the masterpiece that is the other, than we are at seeing our own. But if we had the facility to see the image others paint of us—that of the heart—we just might witness a masterpiece.

Oct 102015
 

Note: The following will be published in the November-December issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I am thankful to Suzanne & Steve Heronemus for their friendship, kindness and wisdom.

Twenty years later, the paradox grows even more relevant. We long for stable, creative lives. What if that is impossible?

Many years ago, I worked with a large trade association. The president, who founded the association 25 years earlier, was nearing retirement. I requested an opportunity to chat about his thoughts on retirement, and the history and future of the organization.

Early in our time together, I asked what would most benefit the association going forward. “If we had a more predictable income stream—if we enjoyed more stability—we could plan so much better,” was his immediate reply. Later in our conversation, as he reflected on his tenure, I asked what he would miss most. Again, without hesitation, he exclaimed, “I’ll miss the early years. There were days we came into the office not knowing if there would be a future. It was a very exciting, creative time.”

It wasn’t long before I realized the paradox defined by the incongruence of his recollections and his dreams. He relished the chaotic nature of the early years…the moments that demanded creativity and innovation beyond what they thought possible. What he hoped for going forward was control and stability…a future barren of the creativity that uncertainty demands.

Nature is inherently creative. It continually crafts new ecosystems and species, and does it by remaining on that edge between order and chaos. To introduce planning, stability and control into natural ecosystems is to plant the seeds of their own destruction. On those occasions, for example, when we impose control by preventing chaos-inducing fires, forests build unhealthy levels of underbrush. When fire eventually comes—and it always does—it is intensely hot and destructive, often beyond that which the ecosystem can survive.

When I ask people to recall a time of deep learning and creativity, they are reminded of junctures imbued with confusion, turmoil and disarray. They recount the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or unexpected physical displacement. In those moments, of necessity, we must regain our footing, and redefine who we are in relation to life itself. Living on that edge, the insights we gain help us create new futures for ourselves and those around us.

I have spent time recently with a man who has become a friend and treasured teacher. Steve Heronemus was diagnosed more than ten years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS. Today, he is wheelchair-bound, can no longer speak, and receives sustenance through a feeding tube. And yet, he wrote a book, Shells: Sustained by Grace within the Tempest, using his eyes and infrared sensors to choose letters on a computer. He is working on three more.

On September 5 of this year, using only two fingers and his teeth, he sailed on Lake Michigan solo on a specially equipped boat. He has sailed twice more since. His dream is to help create a fleet of boats that will make the joy of sailing accessible to others who have limited physical ability. Steve is fortunate to have Suzanne—who is one of the most resilient, resourceful and creative people I have ever met—as his wife. She just smiles and rolls her eyes when Steve reveals ever-more audacious dreams.

When you converse with Steve, using only his eyes, he forms words and sentences that exude wisdom. He refines the ore of his life, through the pain and heartache of ALS, into the lustrous gold of understanding, joy and love. Steve says ALS has been a huge gift, and that he has never been happier. The chaos of ALS has forced him to focus the remainder of his days on only that which has meaning. His smile…his joy…his generosity, bring tears to my eyes in this moment as I fumble for words to scratch at the depth of my affection and appreciation.

It is exhausting, and often terrifying, to live on the edge of chaos. Just ask Steve and Suzanne. Are the creativity, wisdom, inspiration worth the oft-paralyzing fear and arduous struggle? Steve Heronemus shouts, with his very life, “YES!” Who am I to say otherwise?

 

Note: I highly recommend Steve’s book, Shells. It is filled with wisdom. There are short, inspiring documentary films of Steve’s recent victory on Lake Michigan. Search YouTube.com for “The Hero in Heronemus.”

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. 

Feb 052015
 

Note: This article will appear in the March/April issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

You don’t have to agree with my premise, however, if I propose a thought experiment, would you play along for just a moment?

Starting right now, suppose you knew for a fact that a significant portion—perhaps 30 or 40 percent—of everything you thought, felt and believed was wrong, or at least considerably askew. Further, what if everyone else had the same awareness of their own thoughts and feelings? How might you enter the world differently? I have been asking this question in recent presentations, and the conclusions vary wildly.

Some find the idea horrifying: “I’d never be able to make a decision.” “I would be frightened to say anything.” “I think I would be paralyzed.” “We’d never get anything done!”

Many find it reassuring: “I’d be more curious, less dogmatic.” “I would ask more questions.” “I would enter the world more gently.” “I’d be more open to learning.”

Admittedly, I fall into this latter category.

Too often, in today’s public discourse, the retort to an opposing view often sounds like “You’re an idiot, and let me tell you why.” We have public hearings in which, I fear, no one is listening. Attend one sometime and see if you can discern any question marks hiding out amongst the very large and forceful periods that end most sentences. Of course you’ll have to discount “questions” the likes of “Are you nuts?”

The world would be a better place if each of us opened ourselves first to the possibility of our own rational shortcomings, rather than clawing desperately for the flaw in the logic of others. If I was truly interested in listening for my shortcomings, rather than yours, might it become a more thoughtful, sympathetic world imbued with greater understanding? But then, attention to my own failings would require courage…and a less tenacious ego.

Having read a great deal about our current understanding of the human brain, there are overwhelming reasons to accept the premise that a significant percent of a human’s thoughts are misguided. I previously documented many[1], so I won’t repeat them here. But consider a few more.

Human memory is imprecise and capricious. Your brain dissects experiences and stores them in disparate parts of your cortex. When memories are recalled, these pieces are reassembled, not accurately, but in a “good-enough” fashion that is easily distorted. Eyewitness accounts in a court of law, we now know, are among the least reliable pieces of evidence. Once a supposed culprit is identified in a sketchbook or lineup, that image replaces the one real one formed in the cortex at the moment of the offense.

Have you ever jumped to conclusions about another human being based on how they dress, a bumper sticker on their car, a sound bite or rumor…only to discover you pre-judged them erroneously?

How much of what you believe today is identical with what you believed 10 or 20 years ago? While some new thinking is based on adding to your store of knowledge, haven’t you discovered many ways in which your thinking in years past was inaccurate?

How much of what humankind believes today is the same as we believed, say, 500 years ago? I dare say very little. Is it possible what we believe 500 years from now will be equally distant from what we “know” is true today? I think it is possible.

So is it conceivable that 10 or 20 years from now, each of us will, in fact, discover that some large portion of our beliefs today are limited, misguided or flat out wrong? I hope so! Put another way: in 10 years, if I am destined to think exactly as I do today…just shoot me now!

When I think back on the myriad difficult relationships that populate portions of my personal history, it pains me to realize, had I had the wisdom to end more of my sentences with question marks rather than periods, life could have been so much sweeter…and I so much the wiser for having been less certain and more curious.

But, then again, maybe I am wrong about this whole idea.

[1] See my April 7, 2013 blog post, “Majesty and Radiance.”

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.

Sep 262014
 

The conversation left me in a funk for two days…and continues to haunt me weeks later.

In September, I traveled with my wife to Seattle. She was attending a conference, so it was an excuse for me to connect with friends and associates on the west coast face-to-face rather than Facebook-to-Facebook. Besides, I had never spent significant time in Seattle.

As a long shot, I sent a book proposal to the president of a respected publisher, told him I would be in the area and requested a meeting. The proposed volume contained a series of provocative ideas and came to, in my humble opinion, significant conclusions in the final chapter. I was pleased with the outline, structure and the fifty or so pages I had already drafted.

To my astonishment, he agreed to a meeting. I approached the appointed hour with moderate expectations. Certainly he saw something of value in my proposal, otherwise why see me. He must receive hundreds of such requests and can honor only a select few.

It turns out even my modest expectations were wildly askew. He was kind enough to express an appreciation for my writing and provocative ideas, but then, ever-so-gently, splashed icy cold reality in my face. “I can’t publish your book. And, while you are welcome to try, I’ve been in the business for many years and am quite certain no one else will either.” Enter funk, stage left.

In the ensuing moments he provided an advanced degree in the non-fiction publishing industry as it has progressed…or perhaps regressed. “I tell prospective authors to prepare for two realities. Don’t expect anyone to buy your book…and don’t expect anyone to read it.”

What?

In today’s world, he explained, a substantial number of non-fiction books are not purchased by the owner—they are “pass-alongs.” The book was gifted to the current owner at a conference, at work, or by a friend who liked the book and felt the current owner would as well. “So, don’t expect people to buy your book.”

He went on to explain how, in this fast-paced world, no one has time to read books—we get everything we think we need in sound bites or short blog posts. The expectation today is that non-fiction books have a clear message, and it will be revealed in the first few pages. Once those are devoured, the remaining pages are retired to the bookshelf untouched. “If you write a book, select your message, say it in the first chapter and fill the rest of the book with stories and support…but be aware almost no one will read beyond chapter one.”

He pointed me to a book in their recent catalogue whose message was exposed in the title, and finished early in chapter 1. That book has sold more than 650,000 copies, many of those to corporations that passed them along to managers, some of whom read chapter one.

I subsequently recalled a friend who wrote a book of non-fiction. She tells me books given out at her keynotes often find their way unread onto amazon.com selling for a fraction of the retail price…then others can own it and not read it for next to nothing!

So, as I lick my wounds, I remain depressed and horrified by the conversation. I continue to ask myself why? Why spend hundreds of hours writing a book with the expectation that no one will buy it or read it. And, if I were to proceed, the core idea must be captivating and modest enough to be told in a page or two.

Really?

So, at least for the moment, I am shelving my book before anyone has the opportunity to not buy it and not read it.