Sep 182017
 

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
                                                Parker Palmer

These provocative words remind me of a question I was asked many years ago…one that haunts me to this very moment. “How do I know that the life I am living is my life.”

The question turns on a deeply philosophical issue: Is this life one of my creation, or is it possible there is an extraordinary life written in the heavens and my task is to discover it—listen carefully for its clues—and then to live into it fully. Not predestination—a life tied to inescapable outcomes—but a life of beauty and meaning available as a gift to be opened and revealed. If it is, how might I unwrap it and bring it naked into the world?

In my years on Earth, I have been given many hints that point to truths about who I am…and some that point me away from my essence. How do we sift the life-giving wheat from the painful, hurtful chaff of life? Perhaps the task is to discover ears that can hear, and eyes that can see, the core of who we are.

When I was in high school, a Christian Brother turned to me unexpectedly one day and said, “Roger, you get along with everyone.” The words pierced me. I wanted to believe them. They were kind and from his heart. But I brushed them off as too beautiful. Even today I find I have many friends, and few people with whom I do not get along.

As a junior in a Catholic high school I was asked to speak at a retreat about the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding life. I spoke of the power of listening and following the call of a higher power. To this day, I still find the most powerful moments in my life are when I am listening for the call of an authority beyond me.

I hated writing essays in high school, but not many years later I had to write essays to accompany my applications to business school. I found myself writing with a passion I had never felt. When the words stopped coming and the paragraphs and thoughts seemed complete I asked two high school English teachers to edit them. I waited with baited breath for their critique. They told me not to change a word! To this day I find that words when words emanate from a deep place I feel most alive…most honest…most like the authentic Roger I am still getting to know.

At her last Snowball weekend retreat, when I thanked her again for asking me to become involved, she looked at me and said “I believe I came here to bring you to Snowball. You are my gift to this organization.”

I am reminded of a prayer. “Oh God, please help me to accept the reality of my life…no matter how beautiful it is.”

Each of us is given many clues as to who you are…or are meant to be. However, we also receive the chaff of life—messages of hurt and distraction. We need to learn how to walk carefully past those and not allow them to claim us. The ones we most need to heed are the ones that pierce us with their authenticity, those that feel true but too close to our heart, ones we wish to deny because of our fear we cannot live fully into them.

When a Christian Brother, retreat leader, truthful teacher, or a child looks me in the eye and says, “This I see in you,” I have been handed a valuable and delicate ribbon. When I tug gently, I begin to unwrap my gifts. Then and only then can I begin to live MY life.

Jan 292016
 

Note: The following will appear in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Since leaving my last job, when asked about the next phase of life, I generally reply “I’m seeking my vocation.” As it turns out, my vocation has been in search of me, but I was deaf to its call. Vocations, I have come to understand, can be patient and persistent.

Experiences on the suicide hotline crept into some of my writing, thinking and activities, but I never wanted, nor did I intend, to become “the guy who talks about suicide.” It felt too somber and terrifying. How could talking about suicide, especially teen suicide, bring anything other than grief and sadness?

Then, last summer, a local bank invited me to speak to their more senior account holders. They were interested in several essays from my blog; especially one entitled “A Time I Will Not See.” In it, I wrote how each of us will gain some measure of immortality through the messages our lives leave imprinted on youth. They will carry some of what they witness in us into a future we will not see. In my remarks at the bank, I backed gingerly into the topic of teen depression and suicide.

At the end of those remarks, one elderly gentleman—heavyset, gruff and wearing a baseball cap—pulled me aside. As tears welled up, he told me his grandson had recently ended his own life. Looking forlornly at the floor he continued, “I never saw it coming.” The unspoken words written unequivocally on his face asked “How could a grandfather not see that in his grandson?” When I explained he was not alone, teens often hide their deep sadness, it seemed to alleviate his overwhelming guilt is some small way. When I asked if I could give him a hug, tears returned and we shared a mutual embrace.

I began to speak to more senior communities, but instead of treading softly, I started by revealing that the young people they know and love—grandchildren, great grandchildren, grand nieces and nephews, and others—are at risk. Between the ages of 15 and 25, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. I explain the multiple trends and issues that make a young life difficult, and the myriad reasons young people remain cloaked in silence.

In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, and learned wisdom from their grandparents. Today, we lock away the wisdom of our elders behind the iron gates of retirement communities. As one woman told me, “now that my family is assured I am safe, cared for and comfortable, they don’t come to see me anymore.”

When I speak, my plea to elders—our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that they gently and generously reassert their influence into the lives of young people. “Share your wisdom. Share your stories. Tell of life’s joy and happiness, but also share its difficulties, its heartbreak, and its grief. Let them know that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming.” When one gentleman admitted that he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift for the young people in his life to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

After a recent visit to a senior community, a staff member sent an email in which she said, “The residents can’t stop talking about you. You left them with so much joy.”

So I come face-to-face with vocation. I am “the guy who talks about suicide” because the devastating consequences are a powerful wakeup call. I am being called to use my experience to save lives, especially the lives of those who are inexperienced in the pain, heartbreak and challenges of being human. I talk about teen depression and suicide and implore elders to help in the battle to slow the onslaught. When I do, a flame of hope arises with the thought that, maybe, just maybe, there is a vital role for them yet to play. And since hopelessness is rampant in the senior community, and suicide an all-too-frequent visitor, we just might save a few of their lives as well.

Apr 032015
 

Note: The following will be published in the May/June issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Neil Postman

I love Neil Postman’s insight, even though it speaks so forcefully of my own mortality. There will be, in the briefest of moments, a time I will not see.

None of us will be remembered. My children, and a few of their friends perhaps, will remember me, as will the next generation, albeit with far less intensity. If I am remembered a third or fourth generation hence, it will be at most in wisps…an occasional anecdote, image or memory. Beyond that I am quite certain the human whose moniker was Roger Breisch will be long forgotten.

But Postman reminds me of a different kind of immortality. Any time humans imprint wisdom upon one another, each moves into the future carrying the messages learned from the other. Thoughts change, actions change and the future becomes something new. When we have the unique opportunity to touch the lives of children and young adults, there is the possibility some small piece of us will live into a more distant—and different—future. That thought bring tears to my eyes when a teen at Snowball, or a young caller on the suicide hotline, admits to some new thought or understanding as a result of our few moments together.Pen and Ink Senior Portrait 2

But that view puts me at the center, as progenitor of messages to the future. What if I am not?

Last summer I attended my 45th high school reunion. Ed Deyman, a classmate, reproduced with pen & ink all 250 portraits from our senior yearbook—his reproduction of my portrait appears just to the right.

The image was large, perhaps 12 by 15 inches. From the moment I saw it, I was astonished how well Ed captured the young man I knew those many years ago. When we returned home, I unfurled the portrait on the kitchen counter. I was struck how the eyes followed me regardless of the angle from which I tried to elude them.

Suddenly, the ink on paper came to life. As I peered with more care and a bit of compassion, it was no longer simply a sketch on the counter—the person I knew so intimately for the first 18 years of his life was staring at me. It was an unexpected moment of intimacy between two people who knew one another well, but each had somehow forgotten the other existed.

His eyes seemed to look deeper into me than any other I could recall. It was as if that young man could see me, the man he was to become, in the same way I could see him. He was able to examine the life he was to live. I could hold nothing back, since he would see every moment of joy and grace, and live into every mistake, from the minuscule to those that remain intensely painful.

For nearly a year, that young man has stared at me expectantly, and I have struggled to discern what it is he might be asking.

Then recently it came to me. Just as today, I show up in the lives of young people with as much authenticity as I can so they might discern a message that fits their lives, in the years when that image was first captured, there were hundreds of adults whose lives taught me something unique about what it means to be human. “Are you,” that young man seems to be asking me today, “living with integrity, sincerity and love into the messages those extraordinary humans formed within us?”

Suddenly, in the world I now discern, I am the carrier rather than progenitor of messages. It is humbling to remember I am simply the medium through which their wisdom is gifted to the future. If, along the way, I add some small bit of insight to theirs, then I too will live into untold generations yet unborn. But for now, I will try, with integrity, sincerity and love, to be the living message they hoped I might be in order to ensure their lives live into the time they can no longer see.

Oct 042014
 

Most writing is the scratching of an insatiable itch for immortality. Alas, the more written, the greater the itch.

Dee Hock

Since reading Dee’s most recent work, Autobiography of a Restless Mind, I have been pondering the human desire for immortality, and wondering if, perhaps, we understand immortality inaccurately.

2.2 million books were published last year. As of this writing, 152 million blogs pepper the Internet. Two are added every second…63 million per year. WordPress, one of many blogging sites, documents 2 million posts every day. And these figures ignore journals, periodicals, newspapers and editorials.

If Dee is correct, the itch for immortality is indeed insatiable and growing at an unprecedented rate.

It would be convenient to claim I am unmotivated by Dee’s itch, but it would be disingenuous. Who amongst us, when mortality tugs at our coattails, can make an honest claim to nary a qualm? Has it always been so?

The period from 800 B.C.E to 200 B.C.E., often referred to as the Axial Age, was a time of great change. Prior to the Axial Age it was impossible to imagine individuals separate from their tribe. With no stored wealth, and each day’s survival in question, the effort of every member was essential. If the tribe was to survive, each person’s gifts and capacities had to be discovered, honored and engaged. Every person mattered.

With the advent of the Axial Age, cities emerged and wealth accumulated. Families and individuals could, for the first time, survive independent of the tribe. Wealth lubricated, if you will, families from many of the day-to-day terrors that made the lives of their ancestors so precarious. But with life becoming safer and a tad easier, individuals and their unique gifts became less important for survival. Perhaps for the first time in our history, individuals might have begun to wonder if they were necessary.

The Axial Age was also an astounding time in the development of human wisdom. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the groundwork for much of the West’s rational, scientific views. The Buddha proposed his ideas for reincarnation, and an end to human suffering through non-attachment. Jainism gave us the principles of non-violence, karma and asceticism. The Upanishads, the Tao, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita were written during this period. Confucius, Archimedes, Elijah and Isaiah are also considered to be of this age.

Is it coincidence that, facing the possibility this life might be meaningless, desires for immortality emerged, and definitions and descriptions flourished? For Buddhists, immortality was realized by reincarnation through many lives, eventually reaching an unending state of Nirvana. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) found comfort in a single life with a heavenly destination in which we could spend eternity in bliss reunited with our maker. The Greeks found a form of immortality through thumos, recognition and fame that would secure a person’s place on the lips and in the hearts of future generations.

If there is any veracity to the claim that riches and an easy life can make self-worth elusive, our craving for immortality is exacerbated by our unimaginable collective wealth, and our belief that medicine, science and technology will make life safer, easier and perhaps even everlasting. It’s paradoxical I admit, but, as life becomes safer and easier, could it mean that each of us matters even less? And if so, might the quest for life’s meaning become excruciatingly difficult, elusive and painful?

I know this: I talk to many people for whom life has become unbearable for one simple reason—their life has no meaning. They have given up the search for the gifts that make them unique and magnificent. The tribe no longer needs them.

So I wonder. Is it possible the only immortality—unending existence—that truly matters, is in discovering our gifts and being fully exhausted of them by life’s end…knowing they have been given in service to the human tribe. Perhaps immortality and humility emerge from gently etching our irreplaceable footprint on the human journey as the tribe searches for a sustainable path into the future.

Feb 202014
 

Note: The following essay first appeared on Tikkun Daily at www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily. I appreciate their work and am thankful for their generous support of mine.

Years ago, my brother-in-law, a retired geophysicist, invited us to join him on a trek across the lava on the island of Hawai’i so we could see red-hot flows making their trek toward the ocean—nature’s way of making the Big Island even bigger.

The hike was several miles without the aid of a trail. Having spent many hours on the flows, my brother-in-law had many words of advice as we prepared, but it was his final admonition, as we came within a few feet of the blazing river of lava, which lodged itself in some deep crevice in my brain. Since even the “cooled” lava had been molten not long before our visit, he warned, “If your feet get warm, move to a different rock.” There’s wise but useless counsel, I thought. Who would stand motionless in life as the soles of their shoes begin to burn?2010-04-10 07.42.11

I wonder if the same is true for humans as a species. To believe we can continue on our current path is folly. Our collective feet are getting warm—as is the global environment. How long can we keep from being scorched by an economic system based on digging up resources we turn into temporary trinkets to use briefly, discard and bury? How will we continue to feed 7 billion people, even as we become 12 billion, as farmland is increasingly turned into strip malls and housing developments? But then, to save corporate mega-farms is to preserve a different kind of ecological disaster. How long will Mother Nature—Pachamama—put up with a species that shows so little regard for the delicate balance required to support all life? At what point might she call a halt to our self-centeredness?

Our current thinking, and what flows from our thoughts, is in profound misalignment with the natural cycles of life. To continue thinking in Newtonian ways about how to “fix” Pachamama will further heat the rocks on which we stand. Our future depends on our willingness to be in, and of, this world—partner with Pachamama—in ways that are far more than adaptations of our current ways of thinking and doing. Our Newtonian infused minds want to plan, organize and manipulate—forge a future we believe is knowable and predictable. What if, we must instead, allow new visions of the world, and humankind’s role in it, to emerge slowly, and in unpredictable ways?

An image returns from my trip to Hawai’i. As I stood amid the endless black landscape, I beheld a tiny green shoot that found its way through the lava. It was there not because it planned, manipulated and organized, but simply by being there to rebuild the tropical paradise.

Humanity has always known how to be in the world; perhaps we have simply forgotten. The biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in studying living systems, learned that health can be restored to an ailing system only by reconnecting it with more of itself. What would it mean for us to reconnect with other parts of the living system known as Gaia? Can we learn to listen more deeply for what is trying to be born? Can we hear what life is asking of us rather than telling life what we expect from it? Is it time we remembered ways of listening that transcend the rational mind; ways that penetrate our hearts as well as our minds? What if returning home means we need to stop, listen and allow the Universe to find us. Do we have that much courage?

The next moments in human history offer a boundless opportunity for learning and wisdom. We are standing upon a welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pachamama the next epoch of her future—not a future separate from humanity, and not a future for humanity separate from her. We are poised to rediscover our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species, and help create a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined.

On a walk up the steep volcanic slopes of Oahu, I struggled to navigate a narrow, craggy, roadside path to avoid trampling a beautiful, carefully cultivated yard on the other side of the road. An elder tending to the lush beauty, called to me; “Please, walk here; it is safer.” If, collectively, we can find that voice of welcoming, generosity, grace and wisdom—and if that should become the dominant song of our species—perhaps, in the end, there is hope.

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.
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.

 

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.