Apr 042016
 

There is a Buddhist tale about parents who asked a local monk to teach their child to live free of anger and hatred. “Of course,” replied the monk. “Bring your child back in two years.” Two years later they returned and instruction commenced. Confused, they asked why the teachings had to wait. “Because,” the monk replied, “First, I had to learn to live free of anger and hatred.”

At Operation Snowball, the teen program for which I volunteer, we use the acronym IALAC: I Am Lovable And Capable. About a month before our Spring retreat the Teen Directors asked me to speak about IALAC for the 130 or more teens who would attend. The moment they asked, I recalled the Buddhist story and my heart skipped a beat. “I must first come to believe I am lovable,” I thought “and I don’t have two years to discern the truth.”

Everyone has moments in which the reflection they witness in the mirror of life is of a person they find difficult to love. I recall many failures as a parent, when ego and insecurity prevented me from being the kind, gentle and wise guide I hoped to be for my children; failures as a husband, when attending to my agenda left my wife feeling abandoned and lonely; failures in my career, where I anticipated becoming a captain of industry…forty years later my resume is a train-wreck by most traditional measures.

Father, Husband, Provider. If these roles define a man’s life, and you feel you have failed, it can be challenging to look in the mirror and perceive a person who is lovable.

As the weeks slipped by, I struggled to find the lens through which I could see myself as unconditionally lovable. And because teens are still apprentices at life, their mistakes, hurts and scars can seem crushingly painful, and leave them feeling hopelessly unloved and unlovable. If I struggle to see myself as unconditionally lovable, how could I provide them a lens of lovability through which they could perceive themselves?

At some moment the path opened. The teens themselves are, and have been for ten years, the lens through which I can see myself as lovable. I have hundreds of handwritten notes—words that leave me humbled and in tears—in which teens have held up unblemished mirrors to help me see what they see. Their view can be a more genuine reflection than mine because, in my mirror, the brutal voice of failure vies for dominance over the quiet, often shy and cautious voice that knows I am lovable.

So when the time came to speak, after I described the critical self-reflection to which I am often witness, I asked, by show of hands, how many have seen something in me that is lovable. The response, in all humility, brought me to my knees. “What if,” I suggested, “I step out of my body, leave Roger here in front, and come sit amongst you.” I made a gesture of stepping out of my own body, and I sat down in their midst.

As I sat, surrounded by these loving young truth-tellers, looking up at the virtual person I left standing before us, it became easier to see a man who—in spite of his failures, missteps and scars—cares deeply and tries mightily. Suddenly I was able to glimpse a man who is lovable.

So I returned to the question that began our time together: Are we, each of us, lovable and capable of love? “Of that,” I said “there is no doubt. From the moment you were conceived, in every moment since, and in each moment into the future, you are infinitely lovable and capable of love.” “It is,” I continued, “fundamentally the wrong question. The real question is, ‘Are you willing to find the courage to listen and believe?’”

When life leaves us questioning our worth—leaves us feeling hopeless—it is helpful to find a truth-teller…someone who loves us and will recount honestly what they see in us. All that remains is to look, with an open heart, into the reflection they so generously offer, silence the voice of denial, and summon the courage to listen and believe.

Nov 132015
 

Last Sunday morning I unexpectedly found myself in the embrace of an African American teen who was crying uncontrollably. His deep emotional response was too much for me to remain untouched; my tears soon followed. After several minutes, he released his grip, looked me in the eye and said “Thank you so much.” I felt blessed by the encounter.

How can an aging white male and a young black man find such an intimate moment of meeting? It blossomed from our shared humanity, and a profound need in our culture.

The final event on every Snowball weekend is a hug circle. We wind the nearly 120 teens and 20 or more adults in a snake-like pattern that enables each of us to face and hug every other participant. I began and ended the circle with a young man I had seen on the event, but had not met. I had no idea how dramatically that was about to change.

As he and I finished, some in the room had yet to hug everyone, so we had a moment to chat. Never wanting to waste an opportunity to peer into another, I asked what he learned about himself during the previous forty eight hours. “I learned I cry very easily,” he said. It can be difficult for a male in this culture to admit they are not always in control of their emotions. Young men are ridiculed or bullied for cultural infractions far less serious.

I thanked him and expressed my belief that men need to learn how to be more in touch with their emotions, and publicly vulnerable. “After all my years in Snowball, if there is one thing teens respect…appreciate… perhaps even love me for, it is my willingness to be open and emotionally exposed…often in tears” I pointed to his heart and said “Your tears—modeling vulnerability—may be your greatest gift.” It was those words that caught him. Tears welled up and our extended embrace began.

Had you told me before I began my foray into Operation Snowball ten years ago I would one day find words to draw tears from a young man in this way, I would likely have found it difficult to believe. But I have since learned I have some facility to look deeply into the hearts of teens and hold up a mirror to help them see the beauty I see.

Whenever I am gifted by such moments, worlds shift—both mine and the teen’s—and I feel graced by the encounter. And I am reminded we never learn all there is to be learned about who we are, and the blessings that lie ahead.

Aug 052014
 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner

In an interview with Peter Block many years ago I asked about the nature of our gifts. “We’re blind to our capacities. If you ask people what their strengths are, the list they come up with is pathetic. It’s crude and immature. ‘I’m hard-working…I like people…I’m loyal…I’m a good problem solver.’ Ask them their weaknesses and, oh God, you get poetry. They go on and on like an artist.”

When I announced I was leaving my position as Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, myriad questions arose from friends and colleagues. “Are you retiring?” “What’s next?” “Do you have another job?”

The answers I offered seemed feeble in this culture of plans, to-do lists and 5-year goals. I tried to explain I was not looking for a job, I was in search for my calling…my vocation. I was looking for that place to which God had always called me; a place that was simultaneously unknown and feared.

But how could I find that place? I felt rudderless and lost. I had few models of those who sought that space, unique for each human, where their deep gladness met the world’s great need.

I took comfort and direction from the wisdom I learned from improvisational pianist Michael Jones. The gifts of his music came so easily and naturally, he felt anyone could sit at a keyboard and play. So it is with each of us. When confronted with the truth of our gifts, if we don’t say it out loud, there is that internal voice of denial. “It’s no big deal. Anyone could do that,” we hear ourselves proclaiming. We assume the person speaking is just being polite because what they see in us is nothing special.

If I have wealth, it emanates from the love and care so many have shown me. After years running the fireworks, honoring the victims of September 11, exploring the fissures that so often separate us and showing up with authenticity and vulnerability, I have many truth-tellers in my life. I set out to find those who knew me well and would speak with honesty. I approached, told them the story of Michael Jones and explained how difficult it is for each of us to see our own unique gifts. Everyone understood the depth and meaning of that message. Then I asked if they would tell me what they saw in me that I was unable, or unwilling, to see in myself.

Being vulnerable in public does not take nearly the courage it takes to be vulnerable with ourselves. When I sit with a person who knows and cares about me—a truth-teller—I have to quiet the voice that wishes to deny; the one that screams “NO! Don’t you understand, what you think you see in me see is no big deal. Anyone could do that.” To deny what they see is to disrespect a person who, in love and generosity, is offering the greatest gift they can—a mirror into my own heart and soul. To deny is, perhaps, to disrespect the very voice of God.

One of the most telling phrases came from a woman who I helped as she struggled to start a small business. As I told her the tale of Michael Jones and asked if she would reflect on what she saw in me, she stopped me mid-sentence, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’ll tell you now. You listen and then you speak. I know because that is what you did for me.”

So in honor of all those who so generously spoke of my gifts, here is what I heard. I do listen to the world broadly. I listen to the stories and wisdom of the thousands of people who have reached out on the suicide hotline. I have listened through the wisdom of the hundreds of authors who have so generously gifted us with their perspectives. I have listened to the yearnings of members of my community who long for their stories to be heard. I have listened to hundreds of teens in Operation Snowball who struggle to find their identity and place in the world. I have listened to my heart as I try to make sense of the cacophony I often experience in the world.

Then, as I listen, I draw what I have heard into the experience that is my life, and through my own sense of truth, and speak to the world in the nuances that come through me. I try to honor those who tell me I have a gift to say what they have felt, but been unable to put into words.

And, with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, quieting that voice of denial, I believe I do these things well.

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 082012
 
Note: The following appeared in the January-February, 2013 issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 

I have read many books in my life, and always viewed the time spent dwelling in the pages as no more than a conversation between me and the author. I have been wondering recently, however, how those moments are made possible by far more than just two individuals. How much more remains a great mystery.

No author can arrange words into meaningful thoughts without the voices of teachers breathing their influence into the subtleties of the wisdom. The teachers in my life not only held up a candle to illuminate new ways to understand the world, but also held up a mirror to enable me to see something within to which I might have been blind; given me the gift of self-understanding. As I read, it is stunning to consider the thousands of voices speaking through every thought as an author sits at a keyboard or with pen in hand; the author, midwife to wisdom inspired by those who have come before and articulated through the author’s unique life and experiences.

And reader, it’s useful to remember that I comprehend the world through unique lenses life has given me. Those lenses, too, have been ground and tinted by thousands who have helped me birth the language of my life. I see through a grandmother who gave me unconditional love; a Math teacher who helped me learn about learning; a thirteen year-old on the suicide hotline desperate for words of comfort and reassurance; a wife who remains my most loving and helpful critic; teens at Operation Snowball who have helped me peer into my blindness; the homeless and disabled who teach me the limits of my ability to come to their aid. The list goes on and on. With each new experience, the language of my life becomes more complex and nuanced, and I understand others in new ways.

But the moment of meeting between me and an author is not limited to the thousands of voices that speak through them and those that shaped the language through which I listen. The book itself could not exist without hundreds who felled trees, turned them into pulp and paper, and those who carefully printed and bound the pages. There were those who critiqued, edited and refined the author’s ideas, and thousands who distributed the volume to warehouses, booksellers and eventually to the hands that cradle and read.

But it is short-sighted to suggest that this moment of meeting contains only the wisdom and efforts of humanity. What of the miracles of nature that preceded them? What of the fibers and ink used to reveal the words, thoughts and wisdom. The fibers emerged when raindrops from the heavens and a beam of light from a star collided with seeds buried in the Earth to create new life. If the inks are oil-based, the molecules you touch as you turn the pages could literally be from mammals that lived millions of years ago.

And finally, take a moment to look at your hand. Each molecule you see, and each one you touch on every page, were, billions of years ago, part of an ancient star that exploded, coalesced into the Earth and became the trees, inks and humans that made a moment of meeting between author and reader a reality.

William Blake once wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” What you might have thought, moments ago, to be simply a community magazine, you might now see as infinity in the palm of your hand.

As I am gifted with one more new year in my life, I hope to see more of the moments of 2013 as infinity in the palm of my hand. And to know that, as many ancient traditions suggest, if we listen carefully…and perceive deeply…each moment contains much, if not the entirety, of the Universe.