Dec 052017
 

How should we understand human suffering?

I received a call from a young man who began the conversation by declaring “I have a gun in my lap and when we finish talking, I intend to use it.” This young man’s life, and sense of self, were defined by exploitation. He had been abused in every way imaginable, and the assaults came at him from all directions. Now, in his early 20s, he felt used and useless…his life had no apparent value. There was nothing left to do but end the anguish.

After we talked for some time, and I began to understand the depth of his desperation and hopelessness, I asked if I could share a story from the Hasidic tradition. He accepted the invitation.

As the story is told, a disciple asked his Rebbe, “Why does the Torah tell us to write the holy words on our hearts, why doesn’t it tell us to write them in our hearts?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s because, as we are, our hearts are closed, so we write them on our hearts and there they stay…until one day our heart breaks and the holy words fall in.”

After recounting that tale, I told the young caller how I wished I could take away his unfathomable pain, but I was helpless to dull even the sharpest of its edges. Knowing his heart had been shattered hundreds of times, I asked if he learned anything about the human journey that would enable him to help others. “Have there been holy words that have fallen into your heart?”

I was stunned by his reply. He told me story after story of his ability to save the lives of other young men who suffer the kind of abuse he experienced; he truly understood the depth of their searing pain. When he finally grasped his incredible capacity for empathy, and his ability to save others, he put the gun away.

When our hearts break, holy words do, indeed, fall in. We learn something important about the nature of the human journey. In moments of heartache and pain, if we are open to the lessons, we gain in our capacity for kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. Our hearts grow in those moments and we are unexpectedly more human, not less. We are broken open, not broken. I have been the beneficiary of the profound wisdom that emanates from human suffering hundreds of times on the suicide hotline.

Yet, we live in a culture that wants us to believe suffering can be made optional, or, if not, at least veiled and secreted away. Anything that reminds us of our mortality, recalls the fragility of our lives, is sequestered. We are flooded with images and products that hint at the prospect of everlasting youth…and an end to suffering. When we do suffer, we wear carefully crafted masks behind which we hide, lest others learn of our weaknesses and failures. Those who find themselves in crises are often deserted by friends who are frightened by the prospects of their own mortality.

We know, at some very deep level, much of humanity’s most profound wisdom has come from individual and collective suffering. I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell taught us the value of the heroes’ journey…the descent into Hades, only to reemerge, imbued with greater humanity and wisdom.

Because we are unpracticed at being in the midst of suffering, it takes effort to overcome our fear. But when we do, our hearts, too, will break, the holy words will fall in, and we will learn even greater kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. It is a difficult, yet essential, part of the human journey. Those moments plant within us essential seeds of human wisdom.

Sep 282017
 

The call came from a young man in a parked car. He was unmerciful. “I am a horrible, evil person. I don’t deserve to live.” I asked if he would be willing to share what led to such fierce condemnation.

Just before he left a nearby store, as he waited in the checkout line, something happened that put him “over the edge.” In a moment of frustration, he turned to the woman behind him in line and let loose an unkind remark. Now, near tears and overwhelmed at having relived the incident, he continued. “It’s not who I want to be! How could I have been so cruel to that poor woman. I hoped I was a better human being than that.” My heart broke for this young man in his deep regret and sadness.

He was a veteran; I was horrified to hear even a few details of what he witnessed while he served his country. I can’t even imagine how I might view the world differently had I lived through the horrors he recounted. Now, he was trying to create a post-military life. He was struggling in a relationship and stressed by his job and mounting bills. His parents were deceased, and he had no friends who could understand what he was going through. He felt totally alone. It became clear he was living his entire life “on the edge.”

When he told me again he felt himself a horrible, evil person, I stopped him with a question. “Do you want to be a person who is humbled and sorry, vowing to try harder next time, or would you rather be a person who dismisses his actions and doesn’t care.” Now in tears, he admitted the depth of his sorrow and how he was determined to try harder in the future. “So, while you disappointed yourself a moment ago—did not live up to the code of conduct you expect of yourself—in this moment, you are living into your highest expectations.” He paused and whispered, “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Is it also true,” I pressed, “that you learned from this painful experience? Do you think you will move into the next moments of your life a bit more compassionate, generous, and wise?” “I sure hope so. I will certainly try,” he replied.

Before the call ended, I told him how much I grieved for his self-doubt. In the short time we spoke, I had come to know him as a man who wanted so intensely to be perfect. “I am sorry for the mistake you made a few moments ago. Both of us wish it had not happened. But here’s the dirty little secret about being human,” I told him, “you will err again! When we fail, those moments are evidence of our humanness…not our inhumanity.”

Not long after that call, I was having coffee with a young friend who struggled through high school. He was active in Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer. Now in college, he still struggles. He admitted to the many times he, too, feels he is evil. I know this young man. He has a huge heart, filled with wisdom and compassion for everyone he meets. The word “evil” will never reside in anyone’s description of this young soul…save for his own.

As we spoke, I looked into his eyes and realized he could only witness a mistake as errant because he viewed the world through a heart molded of goodness. A person who is truly evil, would not have eyes that could see evil, nor a heart that could feel it.

In the end, we are, after all, only human. As much as I endeavor to turn every moment into one of worth and value, I know I will fail again and again. But when we are able to witness failures as evidence of our humanness, and endeavor to redeem ourselves in the future, our capacity for compassion, generosity, and wisdom expands. Those moments become proof of our growing goodness, not our inhumanity.

Sep 152017
 

A friend recently left her youngest son at college, and is struggling with the emotions erupting inside her. I was reminded of a piece I wrote many years ago when we took our son to college. (Posted previously in November of 2016.)

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”
                                          Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I wonder, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult?

When we took our son, David, to college many years ago, 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 would encounter in the future would be a different person. He would always be the son I love, but he would be my son in a different way—increasingly he would become be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow did not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I had known. Quite the contrary, I was in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he was becoming. I was so amazed that I often kidded him by telling him I was sure the hospital must have given us the wrong child!

So if the deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he became a man, then from where did it emanate? What I was coming to realize is that there was a second person to whom I needed to bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I had to, I came to discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I would always be available when he needed me, but the simple truth is that he would need me less. I would be less important—or maybe important in a different way—as he began to make his own way in the world.

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

Feb 022017
 

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

I have been deeply moved by the work and words of Bryan Stevenson. His book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” shattered my view of criminal justice, and informed my understanding of what it means to be human. How many, even if never having to confront the criminal justice system, equate their value—the worth of their lives—with the worst they have done.

I spoke recently with a young man in great anguish. He called from his car, berating himself for having become frustrated in line at a retail store. In his frustration, he made some demeaning remarks to an innocent woman in line behind him. “How could I have been so cruel? It’s not who I want to be, but perhaps I am. I feel so wicked.”

This young man was living a life, the difficulty of which, few could comprehend or appreciate. He had no family—an only child whose parents had passed away—he suffered from his years in the military, and his wife simply could not grasp his pain and confusion.

At one point, I asked, given the choice, would he wish to be a person who erred and was sorry, or one who violates another and simply does not care. “I want to be one who is sorry and tries to do better.” “Then,” I pointed out, “you are being precisely the person you wish to be. You made a human mistake in the midst of your difficult life, and you are sorry. That does not make you wicked or evil. It makes you human.”

“If this happens again,” I pressed, “do you think you will you handle it differently, better?” “Without doubt,” he whispered. “So, as a result of your frail humanity, are you a more kind, generous and caring person than you were even a few moments ago?” “I hadn’t thought about it that way,” he admitted.

We should always be aware when we fail to live up to our personal expectations, and endeavor to do better in the future. “However,” I explained to my new young friend, “there’s a dirty little secret about being human…you will err again. And when you do, remember you are only human. You can, and should be remorseful for your mistakes, but they do not define you. Your striving to do better defines you.”

Bryan Stevenson went on to say, “I’ve represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.”

We don’t have to commit terrible crimes, to struggle in search of redemption. Anytime we hurt another, or fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves, we can find ourselves struggling to recover and find redemption. Too often, however, we allow our human frailties to define us, rather than the wisdom, kindness, generosity and caring we gain from our mistakes. We fail, as all humans do, and forget that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Each of us is, as well, less than the best we have ever done, but if our view of self is heavily weighted by our lesser moments, we are being violent…and the victim of our ferocity is the person who most needs our understanding, forgiveness and love.

Sep 012016
 

I’m just trying to save lives, but I’m handcuffed. It breaks my heart, and leaves me feeling set aside.

Youth suicide is epidemic, often the second leading cause of death for those between 15 and 24. No one understands why, and there are many valuable efforts to curb the onslaught. But what we are doing is clearly not enough.

As I have traveled the country, speaking to anyone who will listen, I have begun to focus on the disconnect between our elders—those we always looked upon as our wisdom keepers—and our youth—those I might call apprentices on the human journey. In the skilled trades, apprentices learn from those most experienced; those who have learned their craft through myriad successes and plentiful failure. In life, the masters are those who have deep experience in being human. They have traversed the paths of joy, heartbreak, creation, devastation, love and pain. They know the profound wisdom that comes from living…and only from living.

I recently proposed a gathering of elders and youth for a period of dialogue. My hope was to help our apprentices learn that, in spite of the tremendous pain life can provide, if we travel with others who can help us tease it out, on the other side is joy, wisdom and beauty.

The plan was to bring youth into local retirement communities. The elders are there, and they typically have access to comfortable venues in which to share hopes, fears and dreams.

What I came to discover is that these organizations simply will not allow such meetings to take place. The legal and insurance liabilities are simply too high.

Allowing youth, some of whom may be at risk, into the facility is considered too great a risk should something untoward happen. I get it. I really do. I certainly do not want anyone harmed. But I also believe that real life has risk embedded in it. If we refuse any kind of risk, we leave great wisdom behind.

The second reason is more personal. I have no credentials to facilitate the dialogue. 3000 hours on a suicide hotline and 11 years with teens at Operation Snowball are admirable, but not credible. This too I understand. But it hurts.

I’ll get over it. I will find others ways to combat the epidemic if youth suicide, but for now I am going to honor my broken heart.

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. 

Aug 132015
 

The temporary nature of life exposes its most enduring value and meaning. A delicate, fragile piece of porcelain has more value because we realize the ease with which its beauty might be ripped from our lives at any moment. A vessel made virtually unbreakable would seldom etch the same splendor in our hearts.

So it is with the delicate nature of those who know us and accept us for who we are. Their value in our lives is magnified by its impermanence; the magnificence of their unquestioning, unconditional love comes, in part, from its temporary, fragile nature.

If we could, would we return to an earlier time and cast-off the love, connection, and intimacy they offered in order to escape the pain and heartache that flows from having lost them? The answer is simple, but causes many to pause momentarily, especially in those moments when the sadness is fresh and the grief raw and unrelenting. In the end, we know that deep grief, and the tears that flow from it, are the price we pay for love.

It is said that a river cannot be halted in order to study its nature. When we fall under the spell of terrifying rapids, the melodious gurgle of a brook, or the majesty of water in free fall over a cliff, it is the impermanence, transformation and change that bind us to its beauty. If the current flowed forever without unexpected turns, protruding rocks, and the pull of gravity, we would never discern its power, grace, and beauty.

Life itself is much like the ever-changing, impermanent flow of a river, but in life, we find ourselves unable to witness its power and magnificence from afar. If we could, we might see the glory and majesty in a whole new way. Might the unexpected turns, the obstacles that rudely and harshly change our course, the free falls into an unknown abyss, contain a majesty we simply cannot comprehend as we are buffeted and battered by life?

With the perspective of time–more than ten years after his passing–I see the confluence and influence of my father’s life with so much gratitude and love. I see him for the gracious, kind, caring person he strove to be, and forgive him for the times he was so very human…and fallible.

Regardless of our beliefs about what transpires after this time on Earth, each of us is granted a kind of immortality here, in this place. Neil Postman once said “Children are the messages we send to a time we will not see.” By living the messages of those who have come before us, we alter the flow of human history in their name. Even when life is punctuated with turns, boulders and freefalls, with perspective, we witness the river of life as a thing of true beauty, understand that impermanence imbues it with majesty, and know that those we have loved and lost helped make it so.

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.
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.