Listen & Believe

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.

6 thoughts on “Listen & Believe”

  1. Beautifully written, Roger. As always, you have such a way with words. And while I don’t know of your so-called failures as a husband, provider, or father, I do know that you are a monumental success as a friend, someone who listens without judgment, and offers more than a few kind words, and for that, I’m grateful for you.

  2. How easy it would be if everyone read your words and then believed in themselves and the power of love. I doubt if there are very few people who have made it to their adult life without feelings of inadequacies along the way.
    Teenagers have so much to cope with in their young life. To have a child realize their worth by something you said or did is an extremely important task. You are such a giving person, Roger. You have a special gift of knowing how to share your love and understanding with so many people. I loved your message.

  3. Man, if YOUR resume is a train-wreck, where does that leave the rest of us? 😉

    I have always tried to figure out which is worse, thinking you are unlovable and being wrong, or thinking you ARE lovable and being wrong… lots of damage and missed opportunities either way.

    The only reason to live a long life is to guide and nurture the next generation to acquire (embrace, actually) wisdom at an earlier age than we did. And that wisdom, as you always note, involves relationships more so than quantum physics, Keynesian economics or asymmetric warfare.

    Great article, as usual.

  4. Marilyn Connell

    I am not as eloquent as you or Bob but I must say that I found your article so inspiring. As I grow older I learn to love myself a little more each year. It helps that I have people in my life who love me back. Thanks for what you are doing for the teens, Roger!

  5. Laura Peters

    Thank you, Roger for writing this. I have sent it to a dear friend who feels at a loss and not worthy of being loved. This has helped her a lot and reached her where no other words have.

  6. Thomas Gaenzle

    Your analysis of your life and its failures has the ring of truth since congruent with your self preoccupation. Truth that leads to real humility is rarely discounted to advantage. But humility is a good starting point for learning and true, sustainable growth. I would trust your wife’s judgement beyond any other but work on improving it. Questions are of little value if there are no answers. Socrates would have been disappointed if his questions did not evoke them. I commend your suicide work and it’s worth but am aware after 3 decades of crisis work that honesty with caring works better than flattery even when an encouraging spin is the objective. Thomas

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