Oct 252016
 

Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a future we will not see.” When I ask elders if they believe they can change the course of human history, many believe they cannot. I believe they can.

At a recent speaking engagement, an 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?”

I speak to many seniors because 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 24, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. The question I am most often asked is “Why?”

There are myriad answers, but a serious and dangerous trend, I believe, is the disconnect that often exists between those I call life’s apprentices and its masters. In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, but they learned wisdom from their grandparents. The elders told the stories of the tribe, and through those stories they passed along the ideals, principles and values held most sacred. Today, we too often 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.”

My plea to elders—to you, our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that you constantly look for ways to gently and generously touch the lives and hearts 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. Remind our youth that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming. When one gentleman admitted he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

In an era of decreasing interpersonal connection and increasing focus on screens and technology, the eldest among us know better than most the power of compassionate conversation. After spending thousands of hours counseling teens in leadership forums and on a depression/suicide hotline, I know how much influence seniors can have on future generations. There can be a special relationship between our oldest and youngest generations—one that can energize, heal and inspire.

As Neil Postman suggests, every time we alter the life of a young person, a piece of us lives through them to generations yet unborn…and the course of human history is forever altered.

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.

May 082010
 
In a recent blog, I wrote of “Pearls and Plaques,” and borrowed Ray Benedetto’s metaphor to speak of the unique “River of Character” that flows through the communities—be they organizational, spiritual, educational or geographical—of which we are a part. I surmised that the character flowing them is made most visible—not by the pearls of wisdom emanating from the lips of leaders, nor the etched, brass plaques that proclaim vision and values—but by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions made by community members…every hour…every day.
So if the dreams we dream for our futures are actualized—or dashed—by the disparate actions of so many others, how might we ensure these actions exhibit even a modicum of congruency? Is there a way to nudge people—or invite them—into alignment with the values we want the communitiy to exude? I believe the answer is yes, but beware…the territory I am about to traverse may make you decidedly uncomfortable.
Some four hundred years ago, the best scientific cartographers of the day, lead by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton (of gravity and apple fame) and Rene Descartes (“I think, therefore I am.”), drew maps of a scientific universe they believed was mechanical and clock-like. As a result of their cartography, we came to believe actions have definable and predictable outcomes. Even the actions and interactions of humans, like the bouncing of billiard balls, have predictable trajectories and knowable future impacts. In a Newtonian, Cartesian world, plaques and pearls, carefully crafted, would catapult us forward in precisely the direction we send that cue ball hurtling across the table.
But our experience shows these maps are crude and unreliable. Even as children, we learn the world is messier, less knowable and far less predictable than the one Newton and Descartes so clearly envisioned. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows that human interactions, in spite of our most careful planning, often ricochet into wildly unpredictable futures.
However there are new maps emerging…new ways of seeing…new ways of listening to, and understanding the world. These new maps ask us to imagine a world that emerges from webs of relationships and action at a distance. It is a quantum world in which the intentions of the experimenter determine the outcome of the experiment. It is a world of fields—gravitational, electromagnetic, quantum and others—that give the world much of its structure. As Meg Wheatley says in Leadership and the New Science, “Fields are unseen forces, invisible influences that become apparent through their effects.”
What if we were to think of communities as webs of relationships rather than boxes in a hierarchy? What if re-imagined vision and values as “invisible influences that become apparent through their effect”? Congruency ceases to result from command and control, whiplashed through an organization’s hierarchy. Gaining congruency—shoring up the banks of Ray’s “River of Character”—must then be re-imagined as strengthening our webs of relationships and fields of unseen forces and invisible influence.
How do you strengthen those fields? How do they become “apparent through their effects”? One of the most powerful ways is through the stories we tell—our mythology. Stories give us concrete examples of how to turn our desires, dreams—and dilemmas—into positive action. Greek mythology…Aesop’s Fables…the Bible, Koran and Torah all communicate proper action through the clarity of story.
The myths and tales we tell scream so loudly they deafen us to any other message. The stories that pervade our communities help create the fields that define vision and values. When they are compelling—for good or bad—they become as difficult to violate as the field of gravity.
Apr 282010
 
At the March Batavia Chamber of Commerce lunch, Dr. Ray Benedetto of GuideStar gave a wonderful talk on the unique “river of character” that flows through each organization. Some companies support a strong sense of character…others, less so. I wouldn’t even try to relate the depth of Ray’s understanding and research in the next couple hundred words. Instead, I would like to share some thoughts that erupted from the experience.
Like any river, the river of character carves a swath across the landscape, the banks of which are created and recreated with each passing current and the swirl of every eddy. Every grain of sand swept away, or morsel of soil dissolved, changes the course of the river, and leaves it forever diverted.
So what are the currents and eddies that create and recreate the banks of the river of character in the organizations we work so hard to mold? The well-crafted statement of vision and values? To some extent, sure. The CEO’s stirring speech at the last all-employee gathering? To a limited degree perhaps, but it is also the hasty decision to cut off a supplier for a single late delivery…the comment made in a moment of frustration that left an employee feeling something less…or the angry call to a customer who has just slid onto the 120-day accounts receivable report.
Too often managers believe culture is driven by the occasional pearls of wisdom they carefully polish and proclaim…or defined by the etched brass plaque in the lobby formulated on the mount during the three-day management retreat.
Unfortunately, while those pearls and plaques are valuable—it is, after all, a gift when those who are entrusted with the “big” decisions take the time to think deeply about what they want to be when they grow up—the banks of an organization’s river of character are actually shaped by the thousands of decisions made by each employee everyday. A decisions as simple as which phone call gets priority when an employee returns from a meeting makes a statement about whether attending to upper management takes priority over tending to a customer’s needs—or vice versa.
The narrative told by those millions of decisions—every interaction with another human, whether a customer, supplier, employee or other stakeholder—defines the river we carve across the landscape.
So, if plaques and pearls aren’t effective in etching the river’s path, what is? Stories. The myths and tales we tell about ourselves scream so loudly they deafen us to any other message. More on this in a future blog. Stay tuned!