Jan 012017
 

It’s time again for resolutions, but in this moment, it is not New Year’s resolutions I seek. I am, instead, in a quandary about New Epoch’s resolutions. What might I resolve as we enter what many geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch?

Anthropocene, much like Anthropology or anthropomorphic, takes its root from the Greek anthropos, a prefix meaning human, humanoid, or humanlike. The Anthropocene is proposed as an epoch dating from when human activities began their significant global impact on Earth‘s geology and ecosystems.

It’s one thing to conscript a resolution you can review in 12 months’ time. How do I even imagine some action in the coming days whose impact will play out over tens of thousands, or even millions, of years?

Two recent books add to my confusion. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert both speak of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of years, as if they are single pages in a novel. The eons, eras, periods, and epochs of the past are forever recorded in stratifications on the Earth’s crust. The history of entire species is often reduced to a mere sliver of rock or sediment.

Harari’s book was disturbing in its reconstruction of the history of the species Homo Sapiens, the humans to whom you send annual holiday greetings and birthday cards. While we like to think of ours as the only human species to have inhabited Mother Earth, some 70,000 years ago, many human species inhabited the planet, each of the genus Homo. 60,000 years later, we had managed to rid the planet of every one of our brothers and sisters in that genus. We discovered agriculture 12,000 years ago, and within a split second, at least by geologic time, we invented the iPhone…and scarred 50% of the Earth’s surface.

Kolbert’s work chronicles the massive environmental stresses that appear to be terminating untold numbers of species—many disappearing even as you read this sentence. Whether or not you accept Homo Sapiens’ role, I believe we are highly culpable.

When I imagine human history in terms of geologic split seconds, what could possibly be the meaning of a resolution to be more kind, exercise more, lose weight, or leave a smaller personal footprint on the planet? Each seems appallingly insignificant.

As a result of our species’ arrogance and greed, many geologists believe our future is no more assured than that of the other members of the genus Homo. One scientist even suggested that in a hundred million years, all that we consider the great works of man—the sculptures, libraries, monuments, museums, cities and factories—“will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”

Does anything I attempt, as I wander further into the Anthropocene, matter a whit, if every deed—good or bad—is destined to be lost in a layer of sediment no thicker that a cigarette paper?

In early December, I received a call from a dear friend on the staff of a nearby school district. Three days earlier, one of their students choose to end her own life. Her classmates are confused, in pain and suffering pangs of guilt. I will go there in the coming weeks to do nothing more than be with these young ambassadors to the future in their sorrow and confusion. I will try to help them see the miracle each of them is capable of being as they move into the new epoch. So, even if all human history is eventually reduced to a sliver of sediment 100 million years hence, by dint of a bit of healing and hope, we just might alter every forthcoming moment and every future layer of the Earth’s fragile skin.

In this moment, I cannot imagine anything more significant.

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.

Sep 172016
 

The 14-year-old who called the hotline last week was in desperate need of healing and self-absolution.  I realize now, the seed of the conversation we shared was planted nearly 40 years ago.

After finishing my master’s degree, I was invited to teach mathematics at The Hun School, a private, preparatory school just outside of Princeton, NJ. Teaching encompassed four years of my life, but, for my students, I will have been their math teacher for the entirety of theirs. When you fail in many endeavors, there is often a remedy. When you fail as a teacher, your students live with your ineptitude until the day they pass from this Earth.

I often felt inept…unpolished…incapable of reaching the students who struggled mightily with algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Often, they needed a guide with great patience, and I came up short. Those failures weigh heavily even 40 years later.

A note recently left on my website, reminded me of moments in which, perhaps, I was less inept. I was touched by the memories it evoked. The missive was from Hossein Haj-Hariri, who arrived from Iran in his junior year. I could present him as proof of my success as a teacher, but Hossein would have excelled with nearly any teacher. He worked diligently, but he had an innate aptitude for mathematics. He and a few of his peers easily opened their minds to the concepts behind the numbers and the theory. Hossein subsequently spent 28 years on the faculty at University of Virginia, and was recently named dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at The University of South Carolina.

In spite of their innate ability, I remember one or two moments when Hossein and friends came with a question, standing on the precipice of understanding, but not quite over the edge. In those moments, we would engage with the mathematics; when understanding eluded us we would ask each other if we could possibly see the problem another way. As we challenged each other to look anew, there would come a moment when their eyes—or mine—would light up as we completed a critical neural pathway and a new piece of the puzzling language of mathematics fell into place. Those moments too, I remember 40 years later.

I had no idea how central to my very being the idea of seeing another way would become. This week, the young boy who called the suicide hotline was wracked by disease. The ensuing bullying from both peers and self, demarcated a life of failure, pain and self-loathing. And yet, every story he recounted spoke of his caring, generosity and fierce defense of loved ones. Late in our time together, I asked him to describe something, anything, wonderful within. “I can’t,” he told me in a soft voice. “I hate everything about myself.” So I began to recount his stories of caring, generosity and love, and asked if he could witness, not shortcomings, but his huge heart. “It’s your superpower,” I suggested. I also told him I loved him, and who he is in the world. Near tears he told me those were words he seldom hears. “Would you be willing to see your life through your enormous heart?” I asked just before the call ended. “Thank you, I will try,” were his final words to me.

So thank you Dr. Haj-Hariri for helping me discover the power of the simple question, “Could we see it another way?” You helped me ease the horrific pain of a young man whose enormous heart lay hidden.

May 122012
 
If it was that easy, we would all do it, and put an end to much of human misery.
The world can be frightening for any of us, but for teens who are struggling to awaken to who they are in the world, it’s especially difficult. Recently, a courageous young man led a conversation with thirty or more of his peers. He invited them to put pen to paper and anonymously suggest topics for discussion. While the ensuing conversation ranged widely, it spent some time wandering the treacherous terrain of drug addiction, depression, bullying, and the pain that often flows from failed relationships and young love.
As the teens shared the challenges they face, it became clear that elevated self-esteem and self-worth might remedy, or at least assuage, some of their misery. It is, after all, difficult to destroy, or even harm, a human who enjoys a strong sense of worth. Most of us know well the childhood aphorism, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But a name can hurt, maim or even kill, when hurled viciously at a human in doubt of their value.
There were several adults stung by the awareness that these wonderful young people were in pain, and lacked the personal armor to protect them against the “Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune.” Few of us knew how to respond other than to offer reassurances. “You have to know you are valuable,” “You are all amazing” or “Don’t ever doubt yourself.” We utter these words with kindness and generosity, even though we know full-well that when we are beaten and battered by the world, unable to glimpse our self-worth, being told we should not turn a blind eye to our inner value is of little help. A typical private reaction to such a command might begin “If only they knew…”
While teens are particularly vulnerable to the poison arrows that can pierce their fragile self-worth, most of us find ourselves wandering the darkness sometime during our lives. I know I have been brought to my knees any number of times when I failed as a spouse, parent or friend. Few things claw at my self-worth more ferociously than the fear that I may have damaged the worth of those I love.
And yet, even in those moments we are least able to glimpse our own value, most of us can look at others and be witness to, and blessed by, theirs. There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests that if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us we would never accomplish anything…we would be too busy bowing to one another.
Why is it we can have such clarity in discerning the value of others, and be so blind to our own? Many years ago, I was given a hint when visiting with improvisational pianist, Michael Jones. He suggested that our true gifts come to us so naturally, we believe they are nothing special. When another holds up a mirror so we can see our gifts reflected back to us, we are as likely as not to disavow their uniqueness. “Oh that! That’s easy,” we argue. “Anyone could do that.” Michael, himself, denied his rare ability to spontaneously tease melodies from the ivorys of his piano until he was more than 30. He subsequently sold several million CDs worldwide.
So, if someday you find yourself wondering the darkness, certain your life is, as a friend once feared, a “throwaway line,” look courageously into the world and find those willing to bow in your direction. Allow yourself to look into the mirror they hold up and see yourself as they see you. Instead of immediately denying the gifts they see in you, try this instead: take a moment to sincerely absorb their wisdom and generosity, and then say “Thank you, I am honored.”
It can be very difficult, but if it was that easy…
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