Apr 062017
 

One evening this past February, at Operation Snowball, the teen leadership program for which I volunteer, a young woman approached me about a deep sadness that momentarily infused her life. I spoke with her briefly, but the appropriate words eluded me in that moment. The next morning I sent her the following note.

Gianna,

Let me begin by telling you how touched I was you would reach out to me last night. I feel blessed by your invitation. At the same time, it feels as though, in the moment, I was unclear and inarticulate. I have reflected on our time together and would like to share some of those reflections.

The deep sadness you described is indeed difficult. When we are in that place, we wish so much to be free of the pain. I have spent hundreds of hours on the suicide hotline with people who are trying to escape the gulf they feel in their lives. In those moments I will often ask, “Is there something you are learning from this pain that helps you better understand the human journey?” The typical response is “You have no idea!” When our hearts break, the holiness of the human journey enters it in a new way and our hearts grow. In those moments, we become more able to help others on their journey.

It is sometimes helpful to think of all the emotions that populate our lives—sadness, joy, anger, fear, etc.—as passing clouds. They come into our purview, and whether we want them to stay or not, they pass away. It is the definition of being human. The journey is to notice them and see what they have to teach us about being human. If we view them as teachers, we can also see each and every one as gifts. We can be thankful for them…and not grow attached to them. They will go…and one day return to teach us yet again.

Gianna, you (and your sister) are amazing gifts in the lives of so many of us. Your joy, your kindness, the love you have for each other, changes each of us for the better. You inform us in your own unique way, about the miracle of the human journey. As long as you continue to grow into the extraordinary young woman you are becoming, and are willing to let your life speak to others, then let the sadness simply evaporate. That cloud, too will pass.

Finally, this morning as I was reflecting on our time together, I was reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Two quotes from that profound volume informed this missive. The first was from a psalm: “Who passing through the vale of tears makes it a well.” When we allow the tears and sadness to break open our hearts and enlarge their capacity, we become a well from which others can gain wisdom and strength.

The second is, “And so I would say to everyone: You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”

When I looked deeply into the eyes of the extraordinary young woman in front of me last night, it became clear to me that you are a masterpiece in the making. I am blessed by you in my life.

Hugs,

Roger

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.

Dec 182014
 

Note: The following will be published in the January issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

His smile is huge and welcoming, and he has a personality to match. He admitted he is uncomfortable with hugs and tears, but on an Operation Snowball weekend, taking off the masks we wear to protect ourselves, and being vulnerable, is an invaluable part of the experience.

In spite of the tough veneer, there was a moment the façade unexpectedly slipped. As he spoke innocently of his family, he began to tell us of his birth-father—his parents had divorced many years earlier. “My Dad is my hero,” he began innocently enough, but as he continued his eyes welled up and he tried desperately to hold back the tears. “As a young man, he was in a gang—it’s part of the reason he and my mother split. But, about the time I was born, he straightened out his life. He works harder than anyone I know. I love him so much.” With that, he wiped the tears that made their way down his face.

“Have you ever told him what you just told us?” I asked. “I’ve tried,” he said. “It’s really hard, but sometimes as I’m leaving, I’ll turn and tell him I love him.” “No,” I pressed, “Have you ever looked him square in the eye and said ‘Dad, you are my hero. I love you more than I can even say.’” He stared at the floor and admitted he had not.

Why, when we see magnificence in another, especially one we love, do we frequently find it difficult to acknowledge? Perhaps it’s because a moment of affirmation requires vulnerability from both giver and receiver. When I am honored by another, it can trigger memories of the frailties I often believe define me. I can become embarrassed and confused in the face of sincere, caring affirmation and deflect the recognition…and in my inelegance, embarrass the person who only wants me to see something wonderful within.

What if, in an unexpectedly touching moment with his son, a formerly tough gang member, in confusion and embarrassment, blurted, “Don’t be silly, I’m not that great!” All the son might hear from the man he adores is the crushing implication he is silly.

Later that weekend, I sought out that young man. “At the risk of pushing too hard and being a pain in your backside, may I tell you a story?” “Sure,” he said with a curious smile.

“My daughter invited me to join her on a Snowball weekend when she was a sophomore in high school. Snowball changed my life and I am grateful beyond measure. At her last event as a senior, I pulled her aside one last time to tell her how thankful I was she invited me on this journey we shared. She looked me in the eye and said ‘Dad, I truly believe the reason I got involved was to bring you here. You are my gift to Snowball.’ I was stunned.”

“That was more than six years ago,” I continued, “yet, I remember that moment as if it was yesterday. I will take those words with me to my grave. If you tell your father how much you love and admire him, don’t be deterred if his initial reaction is tainted by confusion and embarrassment. In the end, I am certain he will, as well, carry your words with him until the day he dies.”

At the end of the weekend, that “tough” young man left a note for me in which he said I was the sweetest man on Earth and that he loved me. And now, despite my own embarrassment, tears are having their way with me.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I believe in always committing myself to more wholehearted living. So, as I move into the year 2015, I will try diligently to speak to those I love of the joy I find in their presence in my life, and try even more diligently, when told of their joy at my presence in their life, to acknowledge their affirmation with grace, gratitude and humility.

Feb 062012
 

 

Note: The following are remarks I made to members of the Latino community in Aurora, Illinois. I was asked to speak about teen suicide following another tragic death just before Christmas.
 
Thank you for this opportunity to be with you today. I am here because a mother and father have lost a child to suicide. I wish that tragedy had never occurred, but it did. My hope is to use this occasion to prevent this from happening again…from happening to any more children.
I am also here because I have been a volunteer on a suicide hotline for more than 8 years and 2000 hours, and have talked with thousands of human beings in tremendous pain. I have talked with children, teens, adults and seniors, many of whom have contemplated ending their lives.
But most importantly, I am here because of the children and the teens. I am here because of a wonderful organization known as Operation Snowball, which helps teens lead healthy lives and deal with the challenges of becoming an adult in an increasingly difficult world. It is through Operation Snowball that many teens, including some of your children, have allowed me to love them, and they have loved me in return.
Across America, and the world, we are facing an epidemic of suicide among teens. No one knows why exactly, but if my being here can help prevent even one, it will have been a tremendous victory.
If there is one thing you should remember from today it is this…you matter in the lives of your children. In my thousands of hours with people in pain, one thing is crystal clear. Every human I have talked with deeply wants to be loved and cared for by their parents. They need to know they truly matter in your eyes. They need to know they are important and loved by you! If you are like me, it is easy to believe we don’t matter to our children. It is easy to feel we are a failure in their eyes and that we are not deserving of their love and respect, but nothing is farther from the truth. They truly want to love you…and they desperately want your love in return.
I know that many of you grew up in a difficult, often frightening world. Most of you have faced and overcome difficulties I cannot even imagine. I stand here inspired by your courage and strength.
But that does not mean that your children are becoming adults in a less difficult world. It is difficult in so many other ways.
I faced bullying at school, but could escape it when I went home to be with friends. Today, teens face insults and cruelty, not only at school, but every moment of every day through the Internet and Facebook.
Over the past 4 years, our economy has made it difficult for any of us know with certainty that we will be able to support our families. Imagine how frightening this can be to a teen who may not even be able to find a summer job, let alone a career to support a family.
I grew up during the cold war, the proliferation of bomb shelters and school drills to protect us from a nuclear attack. It was scary. But today, terrorism highlights our daily news, cancer seems to impact every family and neighborhood, war rages in Afghanistan.
And there are other issues too numerous to mention.
In the face of horrible bullying, a difficult economy and horrific world news, how does it feel when a young personal world seems to fall apart—a parent yells, a clique becomes brutal, a failing grade appears, a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks off? Do we really know?
It is easy to think that our lives were so very difficult, and that our children have been given so much they have no reason for sadness, depression or suicide. But the things we have been given, the lives that have been handed to us, are meaningless if we are frightened, scared or feel hopeless. If we do not have people in our lives who can listen, truly listen, look us in the eye and tell us we are okay, life can feel truly overwhelming.
If you demand your children speak to you; if you prevent them from speaking to others about the problems they face, you prevent them from learning how to face fears that even we cannot understand. As parents, we need ears that can hear…not those of judgment. Ears that hear their fear and know it is real. Ears that will not compare their lives to ours, and dismiss their fear, but will hear that their lives are truly different than ours and can be frightening in spite of our belief it is not.
And if your children find another person in whom to confide, another who will listen in a way that we cannot as parents, then, rather than seeing it as an insult to the family, rejoice that your child has found someone to save them. One of the saddest moments I face with teens in pain, is when they tell me of an aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher or minister in whom they would love to confide; a person who loves them enough to offer comfort. But they cannot go because, they tell me, “If my parents ever found out, they would never forgive me!”
So if you see signs in your children that worry you. If they withdraw…if their habits change unexpectedly…if the patterns of their lives alter in startling ways…it is time to seek help. And it is okay to admit that you don’t know what to do. There are resources to help. Talk with a trusted relative, minister, priest, school counselor or the wonderful adults in Operation Snowball. Call the National Lifeline. Please do something. Because if you choose to simply tell your children to get on with life because you have given them all they need, then you are withholding the one thing they need more than anything…your understanding.
So if I have a final word for you. It is a single word…Love. Love them for who they are. Love them in spite of the fact that you do not understand them. Love them in spite of the fact that they are unable to understand you. But don’t just love them. Actions speak louder than words; show them you love them. Tell them you love them in every way you possibly can.
It has been said that youth are the messages we send to a world we will never see. Let us, at this very moment, commit to sending them into that world knowing they are loved and that they matter.
Gracias!
 
Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
 
Local Depression Hotline:
1-630-482-9696
www.spsamerica.org
 
For assistance in Spanish:
1-888-628-9454
Dec 082009
 

To my friends at Operation Snowball…

I have been reflecting on the experience of last Thursday evening. For those who were unable to join us, the Teen Directors presented a fascinating and enlightening experiential exercise. We were divided into two discussion groups. The first group—the one to which I was assigned—shared memories of positive life experiences. The second shared those less pleasant…experiences we would often rather not recall. The TDs noted the differing atmospheres that emerged in the separate rooms. As you can imagine, those differences—everything from tone of voice and human interaction, to body language and emotions—were often dramatic.

As we debriefed the experience, we noted how much more energizing it was to be with the group sharing the positive aspects of life. We generally agreed that we prefer to spend our lives with people who are positive and enthusiastic rather than those who wish to dwell in the midst of life’s challenges and crises. It was a wonderful exercise and I congratulate the TDs for revealing life in such an honest way.

If I have a concern, it is how each of us unfolds the lessons into our lives. Many of those in the group that dealt with pain and sadness expressed a desire to escape that experience, preferring to be with those who dealt with joy and happiness. As much as happiness, pleasure, and times of joy are wonderful places to find ourselves, life is false and unreal when we try to wring sadness from its midst. And yet, we live in a culture that increasingly wishes to flee sadness. There is an ever-growing arsenal of pills and medications offering ways to annihilate sadness. Please don’t misunderstand; having spent 1500 hours answering a suicide hotline, I know that for many, medication can turn a life that is unbearably difficult, into one that is contributory and fulfilling. The medications available to us can truly be life saving.

But let us be careful not to confuse deep depression—for which medication is often vital—with life’s tragedies and sadnesses. For reasons I have yet to fully understand, while we love being together in joyous ways, anyone who has been on a Snowball weekend knows of the extraordinary connections we make when we share the vulnerability that comes with the moments of deep pain and anguish. When I recall some of the thousand joyous moments during the 55 years I shared with my father, you learn something of who I am. But when I reveal the tremendous pain and heartache…the deep sense of loss…I experienced when he died, we become connected in a much deeper way. Even I learned something new and deeply profound about myself having lived through the experience of his death—the raw and harsh way life often needs to be lived through us. It is in those moments when you allow me to see what drops you to your knees in agony that you reveal something about who you are that cannot be revealed in any other way. Then, and only then, can I look into your eyes and say “I know you. I understand what you love about life and what you value.”

While moments of joy and happiness are irresistible, when we show up in the vulnerability of pain, sadness and agony, we show up more authentic and more capable of love. And, when we are able to be with others in their most intimate, painful moments—without the need to fix them or wrest the pain from their lives—in those moments we most powerfully show up with love for one another.

Your thoughts?