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.

Oct 212015
 

Dear David & Kathryn,

Yesterday, on the suicide hotline, I spoke with a young man who is struggling greatly as he nears the end of his high school career. A number of years ago, life opened before him a horrific, hellacious valley. He fell in and was held captive for too many years. In the past year, not wanting his life defined by the choices that caused his fall, he found the courage to claw his way out of the abyss.

One of the miracles of the hotline is that callers, desperate for help, will often open completely and allow a glimpse into their heart and soul. This young man certainly did. I was witness to a heart filled with wisdom, generosity and love. And while his beauty was so very clear to me, all he could see were the mistakes that led to his trip into hell. He was nearly blind to the miraculous nature of his recovery. I was in awe of his courage on the journey.

Nearly an hour into our time together, I paused and said, “I don’t say this to many callers, but I love you young man. I am in love with who you are, and who you are becoming through the struggles you have faced, and the courage you found to overcome.” He began to cry. Through his tears he said quietly, “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because you’re the first person who has ever told me they loved me.” In that moment, I found it impossible to hold back my own tears. How could a young man preparing for college, never have been told he was loved or lovable?

As I reflected on story of this young man, I thought of the two of you. I would be heartbroken if I thought there was even a moment in your life in which you thought you were either unloved or unlovable.

I am in awe of the two of you as well. I am inspired by the joy, creativity, wisdom, generosity and love that flow from each of you. Even if I have told you before, it cannot be said too often: my heart nearly bursts with love and admiration when I think of either of you…and the miracle you are in my life.

A sage in ancient India once observed a knife that can cut anything, cannot cut itself. As humans, we can easily see in others what we cannot witness in ourselves…just like the young man I spoke with yesterday. In moments of sadness, loneliness or challenge, even if you must take it on faith alone, remember you are truly loved, lovable and are a miracle in the lives of those around you.

Love,

Dad

Jun 102015
 

Note: This has been submitted for the July/August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Humanity is, I believe, on the cusp of a new era. Depending on the choices we make, the future will be informed by wisdom beyond our dreams, or imbued with ignorance and wanting.

Am I alone in feeling that many of our species’ collective actions seem self-centered and selfish? It’s as if we are still in our adolescence searching for identity. We grab Earth’s resources because exerting power over Mother Earth—or as I prefer, Pacha Mama—affirms an identity we doubt.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of the hero’s journey, an individual’s passage through the depths and darkness, emerging on the other side with wisdom and sagacity, the profundity of which can only come from the struggle. What most separates youth from elderhood is a deep understanding and acceptance of self, much of which comes from the many struggles through which we visit the depths and return, burnished, refined and wiser…less ego-imbued, self-centered and selfish.

The people we embrace as wisdom keepers throughout history were, at some point, torn asunder by journeys of nearly unfathomable pain and heartbreak, only to return with an extraordinary understanding of what it means to be human. Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s ego-crushing years in prison comes to mind.

As a species, we have faced many journeys through the darkness: world wars, genocides, famines and natural disasters. We have gained wisdom from each, but we seem to forget so rapidly, returning to wasteful, selfish ways—ignorant of the delicate, life-giving balance of the planet. Today, we deplete precious resources at increasingly alarming rates.

Perhaps the hero’s journey that will provide lasting wisdom—move us closer to elderhood of the species—is yet to come.

My brother-in-law, Professor Emeritus of Geology at the University of Hawai’i, has spoken of a world depleted of oil…a world he feels is approaching swiftly, much sooner than we can find alternatives. Having read and listened, it is an often frightening picture that can include famine, institutional collapse and chaos. Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus from Harvard, once referred to the 21st century as the bottleneck humanity must negotiate if we are to survive.

I wonder if what lies ahead is a collective hero’s journey unlike those through which we have already traversed. A journey that will refine and burnish the species in ways we cannot yet imagine. If such a journey is in our future, I also wonder if we will find the courage to endure the depths required for our resurrection as wiser, more mature inhabitants of the Earth…to move as a species from adolescence into elderhood.

If we do find the courage to make generosity and compassion our dominant voice, those moments are perhaps the greatest opportunities we have ever had for acquiring wisdom. If we do not, I fear we will never advance beyond our current selfish ignorance.

We could be standing at the doorway, upon a huge welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pacha Mama the next epoch of her future. Not a future separate from humanity and not a future for humanity separate from Mother Nature. But a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined; a future in which we finally understand and fully respect our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species. The next century offers us an advanced degree in existentialism. Why do we exist? Do we truly belong here in this Universe? And if we do, what is our role and how should we be in relation to life itself.

If the hero’s journey I am suggesting transpires, we are approaching a time during which we can allow Pacha Mama to extract from us, individually and collectively, the infinite wisdom of which we are capable. That future holds for all creatures, riches of joy, wisdom, generosity, understanding and love beyond anything we have ever imagined, or ever could imagine. Will we get there without pain, heartache, suffering and sadness? That would contradict the very definition of wisdom. Will the riches we will discover be commensurate with the heartache and suffering we may face? Not only is it possible, I believe the wisdom available to us far exceeds the price we are asked to pay.

I fervently believe it is human nature to be generous rather than selfish. When we stop long enough to re-connect with parts of the biosphere from which we have become aliens, I hope we will re-member we are part of a much larger whole.

I must have hope. Because if I lose hope, what have I left?

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.
Apr 072013
 

 

Note: This post will be published in the May-June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
Funny, how the cost of a ball can lead me to thoughts of the value of life itself.
Several recent books (Antifragile, The Power of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow) reflect upon the human brain and the vast amount of sensory data with which it is barraged. Even at this moment, there is nearly infinite visual, auditory, olfactory, savory and corporeal information bombarding you, and you will absorb, consciously and subconsciously, a minuscule percent. What fascinates me is how the mind can take in—by the nature in which you choose to notice— data that are disparate, incongruent, and misleading, and create what we believe is a coherent picture of the world. The question is, how often are the decisions we make, and the conclusions we draw, based on a truly accurate picture.
If I tell you that, together, a bat and ball cost $1.10, and that the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, can you tell me the cost of the ball? 10¢? Excellent! I’ll sell it to you for 10¢ because it cost half that. If the ball cost 10¢, the bat costs a dollar, which is only 90¢ more than the ball.
If I tell you the redwoods of California are less than 1200 feet tall, and then ask their average height, what would you say? Your estimate is likely much taller than if I began by suggesting instead, they are taller than 150 feet. In replicated experiments, the human brain gets “anchored” to the number first suggested and moves from there; down a small number of feet from 1200 feet or up a few from 150, suggesting answers that are closer to the anchor than to reality.
Did you know that most people, you perhaps, turn right as they enter stores? It is no coincidence the fruits and vegetables are typically the first thing you encounter. Placing healthy items in your cart as you begin your shopping allows you to feel slightly less guilty when you tuck candy and less healthy food in beside it. School cafeterias can change youthful diets simply by the placement of the menu choices.
In experiments, people who sense money in their immediate environment, become less generous in the ensuing moments. It’s true, even if we are not sure why.
All this suggests that whenever we make a decision, or draw a conclusion about the world, we should remember that our view is built on a foundation of limited, disparate information. The human mind will use that incomplete, narrow and inadequate evidence in fickle and often misleading ways.
Not long ago, I spoke with a woman who, the evening before, fell victim to a frail part of her humanity. She slipped into a very human pattern and subsequently said angry, hurtful things to her boyfriend. She knows him to be kind and loving; not at all deserving of the things she said. As a result she felt herself to be malicious and evil, and was tearfully questioning her value as a human being.
The two of us talked about what it means to be human; that everyone fails to live up to their ideals of perfection from time to time. Our brief conversation allowed us to build a relationship based on acceptance of our humanity, rather than judgment of occasional failure. When I asked her to peer more deeply into her world and see if she might find even a small bit of goodness and value, she paused and quietly admitted, “Maybe…just a little.” Then I asked if it’s possible the goodness within her is far larger than she was able to see at the moment, and the angry, worthless parts were much smaller. She paused again a bit longer this time and said “Yes, I think so.” Soon, she was eager to apologize to her boyfriend, work diligently to avoid future failures, knowing full-well that, being human nearly assures she will.
It matters little if we peer into the world, absorb limited, incongruent data, and conclude incorrectly that a ball is worth 10¢. But if we gaze into the world and find ourselves to be worth less than the majesty and radiance that existence itself bestows, it is time to reach out and find someone who can hold up a mirror that better reflects the beauty inherent in life.
See my related review of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow in the next post.
Dec 292012
 

As a result of nearly 10 years on a suicide/crisis hotline and 7 years with a teen anti-drug, anti-alcohol program called Operation Snowball, I am aware there are too many websites extolling the virtues of self-injury, eating disorders and even suicide; and not nearly enough offering a place of refuge and hope. Based on an essay I wrote nearly ten years ago, I am adding such a place: “The-Dream.us”. The original essay is also posted on this blog.

 
In “The Dream,” you will recognize a metaphor for the age-old paradox of human emergence and wisdom flowing from our pain and suffering…the heroes’ journey. My plan is to invite anyone to tell true stories of emergence, resurrection and redemption, so that visitors to the site know they are not alone in their suffering. I hope the site, which will be free to all, will eventually have thousands of stories of hope, joy, wisdom and love.
Here are a few words from the homepage for those who wish to contribute:
“As in ‘The Dream,’ describe a time in which some vile stain may have washed across the landscape of your life, and how, often inexplicably, unimaginably beautiful colors emerged at the edges. How love, care, generosity and wisdom may have flowed from the sorrow, pain and grief. These do not have to be stories of unimaginable pain. Like fractals in physics, challenges, and the wisdom and gifts that flow from them, arrive in infinite varieties. If you would like a road map, begin with what happened and how it made you feel. Then describe the seeds that grew in your life and led to your eventual resurrection and renewal.”
 
Feel free to send the link to those who might add a wonderful story, or benefit from those already there.
 
Happy New Year!
Aug 202012
 

 

Today, as I begin the second year of my seventh decade—with kind and generous missives filling my microscopic corner of Cyberspace—I struggle to understand the clash of gratitude and sadness with which I sit.
A few hours ago, Judi and I left “Charm City”, the place our daughter has taken up residence for two years following her tenure at Illinois Wesleyan University. If you are unaware, as I was until three days ago, CharmCity is a moniker pinned upon the city of Baltimore, Maryland as an unintended consequence of marketing promotion in the early 1970s.
As I sit in the lobby of the hotel that marks the half-way point of our journey home, the clash of emotions I struggle to understand emanate from a few brief moments gifted to me by Kathryn and her fellow Teach For America corps members. This is an amazing group with whom she will share uncountable moments of laughter and joy, spawned by days marked by success; and perhaps just as many tinged by and tears and heartbreak as a result of best efforts that fall just short of their extraordinary dreams.
Just 23 years ago, Wendy Kopp proposed the idea for Teach For America in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis. Since then, nearly 33,000 participants have reached more than 3 million children nationwide with a simple but ennobling vision for America: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”
To meet members of the 2012 corps, you cannot help but recognize them as cohorts in education. But in meeting them, you would expect them to be headed for the halls of America’s best graduate schools—not the hallways and classrooms of the nation’s most lost and neglected elementary and high schools. These amazing young adults are bright, articulate and determined. But what truly sets them apart is their incredible passion for what they are about to undertake. As we sat at breakfast yesterday morning, Andrew, who is headed for an underprivileged middle school science classroom, explained that while science is his medium, his goal is nothing less than “to break the cycle of poverty in America.” This was not the sentiment of one isolated member of this corps; it is shared by more than 5000 of his cohorts stationed across the United States, waiting for their moment to begin.
In order to have this opportunity to change the lives of those so often lost, these newly minted graduates have been through extraordinary preparation: a difficult selection process, challenging praxis exams and a grueling 5-week program to draw out their natural ability to help those around them discover the intricacies and importance of the subjects they have chosen.
Just after I woke this morning, my phone buzzed, indicating another birthday wish had fallen from Cyberspace; this one from a new friend on Facebook. Ironically, this message was from a former student, from the days in the late 1970s when I taught high school math, coincidently not too many hours from Charm City.
It is from this message, and my three days with Kathryn and her friends, that the tangle of emotions arises. I know intimately those moments of extraordinary joy when you look into—and through—the eyes of a young protégé and suddenly understand the wonders and intricacies of the Universe in a nuanced new way. While the word was not used this past weekend, it is in those moments we truly understand what it means to love.
What I cannot know, what I may never know, is the sadness they will experience…sadness seeded by the depth of their dreams, and their hopes for their students and the world. When I began teaching, I did not even know such dreams were possible.
When what we want for this world is informed by the depth of our greatest passions and animated by our uninhibited generosity, the inevitable setbacks, no matter how small, tear deeply into our very being. It is that deep pain that is the price we pay for love.

 

Aug 062012
 

 

Note: This article will appear in the September-October issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
How are you doing? Before you answer, think carefully…there might be more at stake than you think.
I might be wrong, but there is a good chance your immediate response would have been to a question other than the one I intended. If you are like most people, you were tempted to say something like “Fine, thanks,” “Couldn’t be better,” “Not so great,” or perhaps “Life has been a struggle, but I’ll make it through.” Those are answers to the inquiry “How are you?” What I asked is “How are you doing?”…as in “In what manner are you completing the task in front of you at this moment?” Recently, I have begun to wonder if the manner in which I approach the activities of my life is just as important, or perhaps far more important, than the activities themselves. I have been reflecting on my “to be” list as actively as my “to do” list.
Having watched some of the Games of the XXX Olympiad, athletes know attitude is critical when translating mental desire into physical results. On a golf course, if I pull a driver from my bag and approach the ball with confidence, I am far more likely to hit a solid drive than if I approach with the belief that hitting a microscopic white orb with a small mallet at the far end of a very long graphite shaft is simply impossible. (You now know why I haven’t played golf in twenty years!) I was on my bicycle recently when I came upon a very narrow path, perhaps fifty feet in length, bounded on both sides by a high railing. While I never have trouble keeping my bike steady in the open, once bounded by the railing, fear welled up and made the first 30 feet a difficult and treacherous escapade. Once I neared the end of the challenge, my confidence returned and the final 15 feet were easy to negotiate.
My attitude toward day-to-day activities has an impact far beyond how my brain’s neuronal impulses might ease or challenge the movements of my muscles. If I am filled with animosity as I wend my way through my daily toils, I will create different outcomes than if I am joyful and filled with gratitude. Interactions with others, especially my family, are more fruitful if I begin by remembering how much I love them, rather than entering a conversation angry over a perceived lack of respect or difference of opinion. When I begin my interactions by reminding myself to focus on their wholeness rather than mine, life is far more generative. There is a reason why we say “if you’re angry, count to ten before you speak.”
Edward Lorenz was a meteorologist, who, in 1969, coined the term Butterfly Effect, when he discovered that infinitesimally small changes in initial conditions can radically change the course of weather over time and distance. It is said that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, by changing initial weather conditions ever so slightly, can cause a tornado, hurricane or tsunami weeks or months later halfway around the globe.
The Butterfly Effect applies to far more than insects and inclement weather. Any time we change initial conditions, the course of human history is altered. And while it is difficult to imagine that some distant, future international conflict may erupt because of the attitude with which I approach a golf ball, it is not difficult to see how a careless, angry comment from a parent to a child can change the course of their lives. I know…I hear from callers on the suicide hotline how tsunamis of painful emotion have erupted because of thoughtless or angry comments from important role models many years earlier.
So, I’ll ask again. How are you doing? How are you approaching what you are doing in this moment, or in the very next? If you are anxious, angry, greedy or frustrated could you stop for just a moment, take a deep breath and instead approach the next moment with more generosity, care, love and concern?
It just might be that the future of humanity hangs in the balance.

 

Jun 222012
 

 

I was a newly-minted MBA moving from an entry-level position to a job selling catalysts in the oil industry. The sales manager, Jim Trecek, arranged for me to spend a week under the tutelage of a renowned salesman in Toronto. His name was Pat McLaughlin.
I arrived at the Toronto airport before Pat, and waited anxiously in my MBA attire—suit and wingtips—hoping to give an appropriate first impression. He spotted me from halfway across the terminal; my rookie patina shown brightly. As he approached, he ignored the carefully planned wardrobe, looked me in the eye and said “I told that Jim Trecek not to send any of you young shits up here to follow me around with a clipboard!” A fleeting glint in his eye shown even more brightly than my rookie façade. This was Pat’s way of welcoming me, and encouraging me not to take what he said, or anything that happened, too seriously. He made it clear I had three responsibilities: open the doors, buy him cigars and pay for lunch. In return, every time he made the slightest misstep, I pretended to pull out a clipboard and make note.
Through uncountable guffaws, and hours of side-splitting laughter, I fell in love with this kind-hearted, amazing man. Over the next five years I had the good fortune of working with Pat in a number of capacities. For two years, I was a sales manager in the Toronto office and got to see him almost everyday—we regularly broke bread together.
The company we worked for had an annual award—the Golden Oval—given only to the best sales people. Any professional was fortunate to win it once. Pat McLaughlin won it numerous times. He loved his customers and only wanted to be of service. He lived for any moment he could solve a problem and make a customer’s life easier. His customers loved to see him because they knew he would never take advantage of them; he could be trusted implicitly. It also helped that Pat had a seemingly infinite repertoire of stories and jokes that kept everyone in his life laughing.
On a recent vacation to visit Judi’s family in Hawai’i, I spent time with a number of ancient texts. In most, our spiritual journey and professional life were never separate or distinct. “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” simply had no meaning in the language of that world. Life’s labors were never intended to be an inconvenience that allowed us to live a different life in the evening, on weekends and vacations, or following retirement. Life’s labors were fundamental in the discovery who we are and how we relate to the world. And only after we make that discovery can life’s tasks be completed most harmoniously with life itself.
I doubt Pat McLaughlin read many ancient spiritual texts. I suspect he never thought of himself as enlightened. What I know is that he had a way of creating harmony in the world by the kind and generous way he shared himself with every human he encountered. He certainly did in my life. In the end, cancer is the cause we assign to Pat’s passing, but I wonder if, in retirement, Pat lost his way of creating harmony with life, and so life simply left him. 30 years later, I still miss him greatly.

 

May 122012
 
If it was that easy, we would all do it, and put an end to much of human misery.
The world can be frightening for any of us, but for teens who are struggling to awaken to who they are in the world, it’s especially difficult. Recently, a courageous young man led a conversation with thirty or more of his peers. He invited them to put pen to paper and anonymously suggest topics for discussion. While the ensuing conversation ranged widely, it spent some time wandering the treacherous terrain of drug addiction, depression, bullying, and the pain that often flows from failed relationships and young love.
As the teens shared the challenges they face, it became clear that elevated self-esteem and self-worth might remedy, or at least assuage, some of their misery. It is, after all, difficult to destroy, or even harm, a human who enjoys a strong sense of worth. Most of us know well the childhood aphorism, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But a name can hurt, maim or even kill, when hurled viciously at a human in doubt of their value.
There were several adults stung by the awareness that these wonderful young people were in pain, and lacked the personal armor to protect them against the “Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune.” Few of us knew how to respond other than to offer reassurances. “You have to know you are valuable,” “You are all amazing” or “Don’t ever doubt yourself.” We utter these words with kindness and generosity, even though we know full-well that when we are beaten and battered by the world, unable to glimpse our self-worth, being told we should not turn a blind eye to our inner value is of little help. A typical private reaction to such a command might begin “If only they knew…”
While teens are particularly vulnerable to the poison arrows that can pierce their fragile self-worth, most of us find ourselves wandering the darkness sometime during our lives. I know I have been brought to my knees any number of times when I failed as a spouse, parent or friend. Few things claw at my self-worth more ferociously than the fear that I may have damaged the worth of those I love.
And yet, even in those moments we are least able to glimpse our own value, most of us can look at others and be witness to, and blessed by, theirs. There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests that if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us we would never accomplish anything…we would be too busy bowing to one another.
Why is it we can have such clarity in discerning the value of others, and be so blind to our own? Many years ago, I was given a hint when visiting with improvisational pianist, Michael Jones. He suggested that our true gifts come to us so naturally, we believe they are nothing special. When another holds up a mirror so we can see our gifts reflected back to us, we are as likely as not to disavow their uniqueness. “Oh that! That’s easy,” we argue. “Anyone could do that.” Michael, himself, denied his rare ability to spontaneously tease melodies from the ivorys of his piano until he was more than 30. He subsequently sold several million CDs worldwide.
So, if someday you find yourself wondering the darkness, certain your life is, as a friend once feared, a “throwaway line,” look courageously into the world and find those willing to bow in your direction. Allow yourself to look into the mirror they hold up and see yourself as they see you. Instead of immediately denying the gifts they see in you, try this instead: take a moment to sincerely absorb their wisdom and generosity, and then say “Thank you, I am honored.”
It can be very difficult, but if it was that easy…