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.

Jun 142015
 

As we approach the 4th of July, my thoughts turn to the founding of this nation, and a person I particularly admire: Thomas Jefferson. I admire his wisdom and depth of knowledge across many disciplines. In this moment however, what gives me pause is not his insight into the failure of the Divine Right of Kings and emergence of democracy. I am reflecting on what I can only imagine was his, and his wife Martha’s deep understanding of the value of human life.

Martha Jefferson had seven children. John Skelton, conceived with her first husband, died at the age of three the summer before she married Thomas Jefferson. Of the six children she bore in her ten-year marriage to Thomas, only two daughters, Martha and Mary lived into adulthood. Two daughters and a son died as infants. The sixth died of whooping cough at the tender age of two.

Burying children must be one of the most difficult things any parent can do in life. Today, we consider it to be contrary to that natural order, but in times past, it was certainly not unusual.

For most of human history, life expectancy has been short… perhaps 25 years for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. During the early 1600s in England, life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.  Life expectancy was under 25 years in the Colony of Virginia, and in seventeenth-century New England, about 40% died before reaching adulthood.

I wonder, as a result, if our ancestral parents had a very different sense of the miracle of life. Did living with such a profound understanding of life’s fragility permit them to look upon their adult children with deeper appreciation and love?

Judi and I had, and still have, two children. In the 30+ years since David was born, I spent few moments worrying about his or Kathryn’s successful journey into adulthood. Medical science gifted us with a sense of safety, and belief in the vigor, rather than fragility, of human life. I always believed, regardless the malady, a trip to the doctor or the emergency room would present an appropriate remedy.

I wonder how my relationship with them might be different if Judi and I had had six children and buried four of them before David and Kathryn reached adulthood. How could it not be? How could I not see them as even more miraculous than I do now? How could I not worry every day I might yet have to lay one or both of them to rest before my life ends?

Not long ago, I was introduced to a man whose 18 month old son succumbed to sudden infant death. My heart breaks for him. But it cannot possibly break in the same wrenching way it would if I had shared the horrific experience of having to say goodbye to a child.

I am thankful there are support groups for parents who have lost children. But in this age, a grieving parent must search for others who share their unimaginable pain and heartbreak. Martha and Thomas did not have to search for support groups that would gather from hither and yon. In virtually every direction, there were others who shared intimately in their loss. Caring hands and hearts were everywhere. No matter where they traveled, there were others who understood, as did they, just how astonishing and miraculous human life truly is.

Do I wish a return to a time of ever present grief from the loss of children? No, I certainly do not. But I am aware of the paradox that, in our safety and comfort, we have surrendered some amount of wisdom and appreciation—perhaps significant amount—for the miracle of life itself.

Dec 182013
 
Note:The following will appear in the January/February Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
For more reasons than I can recount, I chose well the day I proposed to my bride. Not only is she from Hawai’i and “forces” me to visit her immediate family in Honolulu, but she has family in Thailand and Malaysia as well. We recently embarked on a long-delayed journey to meet them for the first time.
I have loved my in-laws for many years. Now that I have met the extended family in the Far East, I have many more to love…and admire. Being in the presence of a warm and generous family can leave you in awe, but that is an insufficient descriptor for the depth of my love and respect.
I learned of their generosity and acceptance our first night in Malaysia. In a wonderful seafood restaurant, I struggled with chopsticks to extract crabmeat from a tenacious shell and claws. I was the only one with seafood and sauce strewn across the tablecloth. When one last bit of crabmeat escaped the death-grip with which my fingers juggled those two tiny pieces of wood—and splashed another puddle of sauce across the tablecloth—I was mortified and did my best to hide the mayhem with my napkin. One young nephew sitting next to me, with the most understanding gaze, turned to me and said “It’s okay…don’t worry.” It was a generous moment of acceptance I will not soon forget.
The Saturday night we spent in their home, more than 50 family members gathered for an evening of food, fun and festivities. I have seldom seen such a well-orchestrated feast as the family unveiled a cornucopia of cultural treats…and more joy and love than one could imagine.
The final night we were there, after far too many glasses of scotch, they even coaxed yours truly to take to the microphone for karaoke.
If you could choose a family to call your own, it would be difficult to find one more life-affirming. And yet, this family was nearly ripped apart many years ago. When the patriarch, Ivan, was just 19, both his parents departed this earth, leaving him to care for four younger siblings.
I have only the most rudimentary sense of the anguish of leaving a young family to fend for themselves. Many years ago, on a weekend retreat with my daughter, a teen recounted the death of her father when she was in eighth grade. She described the unfathomable grief and heartache that gets only marginally easier as the years pass. In the ensuing moments, I realized, in a way I had not prior, that I will likely depart this earth leaving my children behind to face the world alone. The separation, loneliness and grief brought me to my knees. That night I literally cried myself to sleep. How could I possibly say goodbye to the children who so animate my life and give it meaning?
Before we left Malaysia, I thanked Ivan and his wife for fulfilling his parents’ deepest longings. “I can only imagine,” I told them, “that your parents would be grateful to know their children are well, happy, and loved.” Ivan looked at me with a gentle smile that spoke of his humility and gratitude and said, “I hope so.”
As I sit here, I can easily be brought to my knees again at the thought of leaving my children alone and vulnerable to the vagaries of life. But now, the pain eases just a bit. Ivan reminded me of the indomitable human spirit and our ability to survive and thrive even in the face of unbearable loss.

 

And I am grateful to my bride and her family whose love, support and encouragement make all these experiences, thoughts and words possible.
Sep 152013
 
Note: I am submitting this for publication in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. 
 
“Imagination is the organ that allows us to thrive on the cusp between danger and opportunity.”
Lee Smolin in Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe


Every morning we wake into a world fraught with both danger and opportunity. If imagination is what allows us to thrive on the cusp between them, how is it we imagine—and reimagine—the world in ways that animate our lives and give them meaning?

We have as many as 100 billion neurons. Line yours up end to end and they would stretch 600 miles. (Of course you’d be dead, so don’t try this at home!) Each neuron can have thousands of branches, and connect with tens of thousands of other neurons.

At any given moment, billions of neuronal pathways can be activated as we interact with the world, but they are most active when we engage with life…allow ourselves to be challenged by new circumstances, unusual problems, different ideas, and unique and difficult experiences. When faced with novelty, we can retreat to well-worn, comfortable ways of thinking…or allow life to captivate us, spawn new neurons and connections, and cultivate our brain and its capacity. Provided we are not struck down by the ravages of dementia, we are capable of mental and emotional growth until late in life.

There are times when being challenged is intriguing, energizing and not overly difficult. I was confronted with new and different ideas when I read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin. Smolin suggests there are billions of universes, and they reproduce inside black holes—of which there are as many as a billion, billion in our universe alone. I feel insignificant in the face of billions of stars and galaxies, but if this is only one of billions of universes, how can I even begin to comprehend the immensity? I could disregard Smolin’s ideas and choose not to be changed by them, but if, instead, I sit quietly and ponder, “What if that’s true?”, I can almost feel the growth of new pathways as my brain considers the astonishing implications.

But engaging with life is often difficult, or even heartbreaking. There is a sliver of the brain—the ancient, reptilian limbic system—from which joy, love, fear, anger and sadness emerge. This tiny lobe activates even before the newer, thinking, imagining frontal cortex is invited to the cognitive party. It’s one thing to read ideas about billions of universes that churn my thinking but leave my emotions relatively undisturbed. It is quite another to engage in ways that roil my emotions, and light up pathways that prevent me from even thinking. In a moment when sadness, anger or fear wells up inside, it’s not thoughts and ideas, but emotions that are the greatest challenge to my brain and its journey on the cusp.

I have been inspired by a woman I did not know well…until recently. Life has challenged her in a way I cannot even begin to understand. Some months ago her twin sister passed away—I have since learned that losing a twin is as horrifying as losing a child. And yet, she has reengaged with life in ways that have amazed me. I asked how she learned to reimagine her life in the new world without her sister. “When my sister died,” she told me, “I had two options: lie down and die or live my life. I chose to live! My heart aches beyond belief some days and that will probably happen for a very long time, but, I will continue to plunge forward. I will not give up.”

So what allows us to imagine and reimagine our world in ways that lead us toward opportunity and away from danger? Choice. We always have the choice to disregard, cower in fear, be overwhelmed by sadness, or overtaken by anger. Alternatively, we can imagine the opportunities present in every trial—no matter how faint and difficult to discern—create new neurons, new neural pathways, new knowledge…and “choose to live” in the new universe in which we find ourselves.

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?

 

Feb 092013
 

 

Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said it whimsically: few people on their deathbed wish they had spent more time at the office. But recent encounters leave me reflecting, considerably less whimsically, on what I might wish the moments just before I am called from this life.
For ten years, I have facilitated a Socrates Café. Beginning with “Did anyone bring a question?”, we spend the ensuing moments exchanging thoughts and exploring the nuance of language related to whatever happens to nip at us as we gather.*
In the middle of a recent Café, a nurse began to speak softly. She told how she has been with hundreds the moment they passed from this life to the next. “The expression I see most often as a life ends is regret. It is as if they are asking ‘Is this all my life amounts to?’ My goal is to not die with a look of regret on my face.” The rest of us could do nothing more than quietly take in the reality of her experience. Is it true at the moment of passing most people regret, rather than appreciate, their lives? Is it natural to focus on the empty moments rather than those that fulfill us and those around us? I left the Café disturbed.
Two weeks later, we continued to explore the question of regret at the end of life. Perhaps, I suggested, it is not wrong to leave this life with regret. Others recalled how humans have a natural desire to achieve and create…to leave this place better as a result of our journey. Does the endless longing to create insure there will be things undone no matter when our life ends, and that regret over the undone will animate our neurons as they fire for the last time?
In the Sioux tradition there is a battle cry, “I am ready for whatever comes.” It is often translated poorly and credited to Crazy Horse as “Today is a good day to die.” The group reflected on what it might mean for today to be a good day to die. The nurse who started us down this extraordinary path suggested it might be powerful for each of us to seek the answer privately. “If you can answer ‘yes,’ it might be valuable to reflect on the aspects of life that give you emotional permission to say that if life ended today, it would feel complete, satisfying and fulfilled.”
     In between the two Cafés, I was with a group challenged by the following quirky question: “If you could have a superpower, what would it be?” The suggestions were fun and imaginative. Teleportation, the ability to fly or read others’ minds were among the most popular. But it was those that dealt with time that gave me pause: “I’d like to be able to do two things at once…slow down time…turn back time…get by on one or two hours of sleep.” I began to wonder what lay at the heart of such desires. Is a wish for more time an indicator I am dissatisfied with what I have done with the time already spent? Does such a wish silently scream that what I have done—or even worse, who I am—is not enough? Is my endless list of to-dos really that important? And how many of the items on that list are there to assuage my fragile ego rather than meet the world’s great needs? Is it possible to lay head against pillow each night with a deep sense that what was done that day was enough?
So what do I wish as this life reaches its conclusion? The same things I wish each night as I lay head against pillow: that I am wise enough to have salved wounds I might have opened, to have told those around me how much they have meant on my journey and to know that in some small ways the balance of good and bad in my life tips more towards the good. If I have met the world’s great need in some small way, perhaps, in those final moments, I will feel my life will have been enough.
* We meet the 1st and 3rd Wednesday evenings at the Barnes & Noble in Geneva Commons beginning at 6:30 p.m. should you wish to join us. All are welcome.
Jan 072012
 

 

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

 

Dec 312011
 

 

He sat alone, with his head buried in his hands. One of the other adults on the Snowball weekend turned to me and suggested he didn’t look good. I offered to speak with him. As I approached, he looked up and I asked if he was okay. With sad, averted eyes he told me he was.
As I turned to leave, something inside begged me not to walk away; I knew he was not telling me the truth of his life. I returned as he stood up, looked into his eyes and said, “Here is what your words and body language just spoke to me. ‘I am really not okay, but you are not the person I would talk with about it.’ You don’t need to talk with me; I just want to know you have someone you can talk with.” In that instant, his body language, and our relationship, changed. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “Thank you, I’m just going through some tough times, but I’ll be okay…and yes, I do have people I can talk with.” I offered him a hug and left. I still didn’t even know his name.
At the end of the weekend, intermixed with numerous “warm fuzzies” written to me by participants, was one that said, in part, “You’ve shown that some people really do care. You’ve given me a reason to carry on.” The note was signed, “Love, Dakota”. It was several days before I could confirm that this kind and generous note was from the young man with whom I had the brief exchange the Saturday before.
For the next two years, I saw Dakota Lewis on Snowball weekends and at occasional Thursday night meetings. We shared many emotionally horrific times, including the suicide of his father. Dakota continued to affirm—through sincere embraces and many kind, generous words—the beautiful person he saw in me; even if I was often unable to see it in myself. I too, spoke to him of the beautiful young man he had become—a person able to instantly see, and speak to, the beauty in others.
After he graduated from high school, our opportunity to see, or speak with, one another became more and more rare. A graduation gift, and several text and voice messages, went unanswered.
The year 2010 ended quietly in my life, but I awoke early New Year’s morning to learn that the young man who so often pointed to my inner beauty had taken his life in the moments before the new year emerged. As hard as so many of us tried, Dakota was never able to see the extraordinary gifts we could see shining from within him.
On this, the first anniversary of his suicide, I sit with tears welling up inside…tears that represent a mix of sadness over losing him, and guilt for not being there one more time to draw him back into his life…a life that touched and changed many others.
As the New Year begins a few hours from now, I will continue to try to help others see the beauty that exists within them. But I will try to remain cognizant that the only one who I can truly help see inner beauty is me. If I cannot learn to witness mine, I remain a hypocrite when I try to point others towards theirs. As is so often noted, changing the world truly is an inside job.
I love you Dakota. I miss you terribly. And I will be forever grateful you remain one of my most profound teachers.
Dec 172011
 

 

Note: The following will be published in the January/February issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
As 2012 begins, I am aware it is a time during which many reflect on their lives and consider promises to themselves and the world for renewal. We call them New Year’s resolutions.
But as I imagine the New Year, there is a different kind of resolution I seek. Musical harmony reaches a point of resolution when a dissonant note or chord is followed by a consonant one. The dissonant note in my life, for which I seek a consonant resolution, has to do with a kind of selfishness that springs from what I imagined was generosity.
In the closing months of 2011, I spent time with a young man who was struggling mightily over the untimely death of a close friend. I did little more that listen and offer a hug when I thought it might help. Once or twice I looked into his eyes to reaffirm his value, and acknowledge his pain. It felt like the right thing to do. A note he wrote confirmed that what I offered was deeply appreciated. It said, in part, “It was your gentle hand that guided me through these dark times. I credit you with the fact that I’m still here on this earth.” Those words—and what they implied—brought tears to my eyes; tears that return even now as I recall them. His words were unexpected, kind and very generous.
I responded by offering to be there for him if ever he needed me. “Find me,” I said, “no matter what.” He promised he would, but then added words, the depth and sincerity of which I seldom hear from a person not yet 20. “Roger, if you ever need anyone, I will be there for you.” In that moment I found them a bit jarring. What might it mean for me, in a dark moment to call a teen and ask for support? At first, my confusion was wrapped around his ability to offer advice to someone so much older. What words could he possible conjure that would offer comfort? But as I reflected more deeply, I wondered if I would have the courage to call and insert my sadness and misery into his life. How could I burden someone else, especially someone so young, with difficulties that seem insoluble even to me?
That is when the dissonant chord struck. As a friend said, “You are really very selfish with your generosity.” It was okay for me to be the giver. It was okay for me to try to save him, but I was stubbornly unwilling to give him the same opportunity…unwilling to be the recipient of his kind and generous nature. And while he may not conjure words to help me understand the path forward, he is every bit as capable as I to listen, offer a hug when he thinks it might help, or look into my eyes to reaffirm my value and acknowledge my pain.
So the resolution I seek as I peer tentatively into the New Year is the consonant chord of acceptance: to turn to my young friend and say with the deepest sincerity, “Yes! If you are willing to allow me to come to your aid, I, too, will accept your kindness when the slings and arrows life hurls at me penetrate too deeply.”
It is said it is more blessed to give than to receive, but when I am only willing to give, I create a dissonance in the world that begs for resolution. I add harmony when I find the courage to tear down walls I have built to protect myself and allow others to be generous in return. It is that resolution I seek in 2012 as I try not to be so selfish with my generosity.
I wish you great harmony in the New Year.
Oct 152011
 
Note: The following will be published in the November/December Issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. It is reprinted with permission.
 
“At the deepest level, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient…only the universe rearranging itself.”
                                                            Jon Kabat-Zinn
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So too are gifts. I have learned this in many ways, but none more poignant than the hundreds of heart-wrenching moments spent on the suicide hotline with those whose lives became so difficult they contemplated ending them. I am thankful that instead, they reached out for help.
A major portion of training for suicide intervention involves learning how to gently enter a conversation by taking time to connect deeply with the caller, trying to understand what it is about life that makes it so unbearable. We ask, “Why do you want to die?” Through deep listening and empathy—the essence of our natural human ability to truly converse—we build a relationship that allows us, at some sacred moment, to ask, “Would you be willing to share with me, why you want to live?” It is in the ensuing moments that a space opens for a human heart to burst open. A young father in tears says, “I have the most beautiful children in the world. How could I ever hurt them so?” Another will admit “My parents love me so much. If I ended my life, a part of theirs too would end.” Or the person at the other end has already given so much of themselves that they are physically, financially and emotionally drained, and yet they say “I know I still have much to give to the world.” Sometimes a caller will burst into tears and simply exclaim “I don’t want to die!” In those sacred moments it is not only the caller’s heart in which a fissure appears…hearts at both ends of the conversation open to one another. My own tears remind me of my humanity…and gratitude for life.
As a trainer, I have had many volunteers listen as I share moments with humans in need. After one difficult, emotionally-draining call, a trainee said, “Roger, you have a gift.” It was a wonderful, kind and generous thing to say, but if she meant that I have some unique ability, I must demur. It is the essence of what it means to be human to simply sit with another in their moment of sorrow, pain and hurt, and simply listen. We all have that gift, even if some may have forgotten.
Often, after a particularly difficult call—a voyage from treacherous, stormy waters roiled by thoughts of death to a sea ever-so-slightly calmed by a renewed desire for life—a caller will express gratitude for our time together. I will sometimes, in return, tell my fellow voyager they were a gift in my life. It takes them by surprise, and many I fear, don’t believe me. But during our journey they may have reminded me of the life-affirming power of the love between parents and children…or the profundity of the human desire to cling to life…or the elegance and beauty of simple human connection. I am, during those moments, fully immersed in the vulnerable, raw and revealing human condition. It is not possible to take such a journey and return unblessed. The Universe has rearranged itself and I feel far more the recipient of gifts and grace than I am the giver.
Having reached these final words, please know that another gift has just been generously given. Thank you for the gift of sharing these few moments of your life, and perhaps allowing a small crevice to tear into your heart.