Feb 172021
 

Note: The following is a short excerpt from a book I have been drafting, about how lost the species Homo Sapiens has become. I have titled it Moving to a Different Rock: Humanity’s Journey Home. I welcome your thoughts.

Ending Selfishness

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

                                                            Thomas Merton

The moment we entered this world we were given life…is it possible we deserve nothing more? Should life be a continual search for what we can give in return for this extraordinary gift, rather than a search for what we can gain? To the extent we allow ego to gain identity and strength by shrouding itself in privacy and hiding behind possessions, we make it difficult or impossible to “cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.”

If I were to suggest that another species had the right to own some portion of this Earth’s resources—that we had no right or access to them—we would be incensed. And yet, we believe we have the right to do just that to other species. What the Universe has given, is given equally to all.

And while the thought of giving up private property is radical enough, how might the world be different if we allowed the possibility we do not have the right to, nor do we even deserve, personal privacy? To have another person know everything about me—even my most intimate thoughts and feelings—would seem a violation.

However, what if we imagined for a moment that all human privacy vanished? What if we lived in a world where all was revealed, a world in which openness and vulnerability were a matter of course, rather than a matter of choice? The moment I became angry, you would know. My jealousies, frustrations, and hatreds would be revealed for all to know. Could I live in a world in which all I revile about myself, everything about me that makes me feel small and inadequate would be known?

There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests 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. In a world where you immediately know my story, you may know my faults, but you also know all that tears at my heart. And I too would know what tears at yours. In such a world, we would look at each other and the faults would vanish in the face of our mutual humanity. And in that moment of blessing, the word Namaste—the God in me is witness to the God in you—would have meaning we cannot now even begin to appreciate.

But I am not just suggesting the absence of personal privacy might have value. I am suggesting we do not deserve personal privacy.

One of the first lessons we try to teach young children is the value of sharing and generosity. Why are sharing and generosity so valued? Because when we share with another, the value of what the Universe has given us multiplies. We both gain from experiencing the utility of what is in front of us, and because we not only have our own ideas of its value, through the connection and clash of those ideas, the utility for humanity can multiply many times over.

But our sharing and generosity comes to a halt when it comes to the most intimate, and I might suggest, valuable parts of who we are. I am fond of suggesting to those who call the suicide hotline—those desperate to find the value of their lives—that they are living a life never lived by any human throughout history; a life that will never be lived again. That gives every person some unique view of what it means to be human. But that unique, precious, and enormously valuable wisdom is unavailable unless we are willing to share our stories in all their most intimate details.

To demand personal privacy just might be the ultimate form of selfishness. Ending that selfishness—to learn to talk openly about our deepest vulnerabilities—is one of the skills we will need to witness true beauty amid the coming chaos.

Oct 042020
 

“You’re on this earth for a reason. Life is not a right that comes bearing a right, which is the right of getting. Your life is a gift, and it came bearing a gift, which is the freedom and the art of giving. It is such a joyous way of being.”

Is it just me, or does it feel as though the relentless diet of animosity and polarization we are fed rips joy from life?

Because of an astonishing series of events in 1999, I got to know Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA. In 1991, Dee became one of thirty living Laureates of the Business Hall of Fame and was recognized as one of eight individuals who most changed the way people live in the past quarter century. When I met him, he had just published his groundbreaking book, Birth of the Chaordic Age.

Lest you conjure an image of an aloof, self-absorbed titan of industry, Dee is anything but. He is one of the finest, most generous, kind, and erudite people I have ever encountered. He was humble and unassuming to a fault. The sentiments expressed above came from Dee’s heart when I asked if there were words he wished to leave for his grandchildren. He would also tell them, “take care of yourself, take care of the others, and take care of this place.”

It wasn’t Dee’s reputation or success that drew me to him. It was the depth of his humanity. It was his devotion to human decency, his unwavering commitment to exceptional personal values, and his unquenchable desire for knowledge and wisdom that touched my heart and soul…and changed the course of my life. Dee, more than anyone, gave me insights into the power of emergence; the ways in which infinitely complex, interesting, and magnificent physical, virtual, and organic systems and structures emerge from simple, yet powerful values. But it is only when we exhibit unwavering commitment to our most cherished values, allowing new and vibrant ideas to percolate, that beauty and complexity emerge.

Perhaps an unwavering commitment to any set of values will allow complexity to emerge. But, in my mind, what gives that complexity beauty and magnificence is when we remember “life is a gift, and it came bearing a gift, which is the freedom and the art of giving.”

Today, it often seems that crippling, humanity-draining animosity and polarization leap out of every nook and cranny. From every vantage point—the press, social media, televised news—all we hear are people demanding rights. Have we forgotten “Life is not a right that comes bearing a right, which is the right of getting”? Don’t misunderstand; there are untold millions who have been denied basic human rights. Asking, even demanding, those rights for every person can be an act of great courage and generosity. But those of us who have not been denied have no right to demand even more.

Because of his unwillingness to compromise his beliefs, values, and visions, Dee found himself unemployed and nearly destitute several times early in his career. “I don’t see that as any great achievement. Yes, I was out of work, and at some critical times. I can’t answer except to say I had a sense that if I didn’t take a stand something in me would die. I only have one life. How do I choose to use it?”

So how do I choose to live my one and only life? In my moments of confusion and dismay at the animosity and polarization I feel surrounding, even suffocating, me, I recall Dee’s words and wonder how I might stop, even for a moment, and ask “what must I stand for lest something in me will die?” Then, and only then, can I find new ways to explore the “freedom and art of giving,” discern more joyous ways of being, and allow true beauty and magnificence to emerge.

Post Script. I emailed a link of this post to Dee, and a short time later received the following reply:

How kind and thoughtful of you, Roger, to remember our meetings so long ago, and write with a reference to your recent blog.  I think you do me too much credit.

In the middle of my 92nd year on this marvelous planet, I still continue doing what I can to help people understand that when the world seems to be staging a madhouse, it is just evolution in temporary flood, trying to sweep away archaic concepts of societal  organization, and management, to make room for the new.

Unfortunately, a few adventures with the medical trade that come with age have put an end to travel for me as well as Ferol, the love of my life for seventy five years.  None the less, life remains joyous, and my confidence in the future has not been diminished.

Again, thank you for taking time to write, and for your efforts to create a more livable world.

Sep 282020
 

Perhaps it is human conceit, our vanity, that most blinds us.

I recently heard of a person whose goal is to make a great deal of money so he can give much of it away. Inherent in his view was a stated desire to reduce poverty around the world. But how much of his desire and tactics emanate from personal conceit?

Many years ago, I attended a one-day conference held in the Unity Temple, home to the Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Illinois. This magnificent house of worship was designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built between 1905 and 1908.

The keynote speaker, who took the stage just prior to lunch, was Satish Kumar, an elder and wisdom keeper from India. He spoke with deep conviction about the conceit inherent in the human species. He spoke of the American values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and the French dictum, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” He noted how each of them were purely human-centric. They include little regard for other living systems within the biosphere.

But it was what I learned immediately after his remarks that, many years later, still leaves me unsettled, and uncertain how to live my life. Attendees at the conference were assigned to tables for lunch, and, to my surprise and amazement, Satish Kumar took his seat directly across the table from me. The ensuing dialogue was replete with wisdom emanating from a man who has lived a life of deep inquiry. Near the end of our lunch, the topic turned to how we might deal with the desperate poverty that befalls hundreds of millions of humans. When I mentioned the helplessness I feel at not being able to give enough to make much difference, he turned to me and said something I will never forget: “Roger, what you in the west don’t understand is the solution to poverty is not to give more, but to take less.”

I am certain I still do not fully understand the complexity and implications of this simple statement, but I have come to believe in its deep truth. And these many years later, I still live a life that takes far too much, leaving far too little for the millions in need.

May 042020
 

What if the answer was deeper, less objective and more nuanced than a simple recounting of the number of times the earth orbited the sun since the day you arrived?

If I asked, instead, how creative you are, I would be confused and disheartened if you answered “5,” “23,” or “99.” Those are meaningless in the context of creativity. I would appreciate hearing that you love to write poetry or music. It would tell me a great deal to hear that your passions are theater and improv.  I could look more deeply into your soul if you say, “While I am not terribly accomplished, I take great pride in some of the pencil sketches I have attempted.” I was touched recently by a caller who told me she loves to write music, especially pieces that erupt from her deep sorrow and invite others to listen deeply to their own with less judgement.

Similarly, if I asked about your generosity, your capacity for love, and the extent to which you are trustworthy and honest, what would you tell me? Should I ask of your wisdom, I would gain insight even if you were to express doubts about the depth and breadth of yours.

With one exception, there is no upper limit on the qualities that define our character. Our admiration for another is in direct proportion to the extent of their creativity, generosity, love, trustworthiness, honesty, and wisdom.

The one exception, or course, is our culture’s, oft unspoken, acceptable upper limit on the number of years we have lived. There is no remark about creativity, generosity, love or wisdom equivalent to being “over the hill” regarding age.

What would it mean if the answer to how old you are was similarly nuanced? What if, instead, how old you are is defined by the character you cultivated during the years you have lived? To which, of course, there is no limit.

What if, instead of telling me your age, you were willing to admit you are old enough to know the limits of your knowledge; that you are coming to understand the power of questions and are less compelled by the veracity of opinions—yours and others. To what extent would you be willing to share you are old enough to focus more on what is left for you to be, and less about what is left for you to do?

I would love to hear you have learned the power of compassion and how you might use yours to ease the journey of others; that you are discovering, when you are with another during a time of deep sadness and grief, it is not within your power to fix, but absolutely within your power to be fully present—and that that is enough. Might you also admit you have less fear about your legacy and are taking comfort in knowing that such a thing is unknowable.

Should we meet sometime soon, and I ask how old you are, know that I do not care a whit about the years you have lived. What I care to discern is the extent to which you have fully lived during your many revolutions of the planet Earth, and developed character worthy of the time you have been given.

Apr 132020
 

“I would steal the stress and abuse from your life in an instant if I could, but I cannot. However, has the chaos you are facing taught you something about the human journey that you can use to help others?” I have asked some version of this question to hundreds of people over the past 17 years. The most typical response is, “You have no idea!” I recall asking one woman, who was bone weary from a life of giving and having been taken advantage of, why she might want to go on. Her response filled my heart. “I still have so much left to give.”

If you ask people to recount the most learningful, creative moments of their lives, a surprising number of those stories will have arisen from times when life seemed out of control. It is during those times, when life sidles from order into chaos, we are called to be maximally creative. A spouse is unexpectedly gone, and the broken family must discover new ways to survive. An unforeseen chronic disease suddenly invades, and life abruptly pivots. Loss of a career or life goal demands we see the world anew.

In the 1990s, when Dee Hock was writing his extraordinary book, “Birth of the Chaordic Age,” he thought a great deal about that edge where nature is maximally creative, where chaos and order suddenly overlap. He searched all the major languages for a word to describe that intersection, but none was to be found. So he borrowed the first syllables from “chaos” and “order” to create the word “chaord.” If you wish to find the emergence of creativity and innovation, you simply need to look for chaords, and you needn’t go far. Except for the species Homo sapiens, every other species in nature experiences the intersection of order and chaos every single day.

Covid-19 has thrown the entirety of the human species into that overlap of order and chaos. Out of the chaordic experience of the last several months, I’ve been witness to innovation, creativity and emergence of new ideas unlike anything I have ever experienced in any comparable span of time. I am heartbroken for the millions who are finding the future filled with anxiety and pain, yet I am astounded by the generosity and creativity that has emerged to try to ease that pain. Money being raised to fill food pantries…volunteers shopping for the elderly and infirmed so they may remain safe…neighborhoods coming together on balconies to remind us of what we have, as to opposed to what we are losing…millions at home sewing masks…artists of all ilks flooding social media with astonishing music and beauty…essential services pivoting to provide and help us remain safe…and, factories instantly repurposed to produce PPE and respirators. The global eruption of generosity, love, even intimacy, is palpable.

Around the globe, humans are doing everything possible to edge out of this chaord and return to our normal sense of safety, control and order. As much as anyone, I grieve the losses, and fear the future we face, as long as the coronavirus reigns rampant. And yet, I feel a paradox in the offing. Will we, even to some small extent, grieve the loss of generosity, love and intimacy not nearly so palpable when life does return to “normal?”

Dec 052019
 

At first, it ended tragically.

At a recent Operation Snowball* retreat, the teens wrote a skit entitled “Asking for Help.” In the first performance, one of the teens was struggling mightily with challenges life mercilessly hurled in her path. Despite her overwhelming heartbreak and pain, she never asked for help. Those around her, even if they noticed, did little in response to her subtle cries for love and support. Alone and confused, without the comfort of family and friends, her life ended in tragedy.

I was asked to facilitate the ensuing discussion, so I rose and asked the eighty or so teens what went wrong. “What would you have done differently?” I inquired. They knew she needed help and were saddened that those around her let her down. The failure brought some in the room to tears.

We talked about the many ways we can pick up on a cry for help. Obviously, when friends tell us they are in trouble, it’s easy. But often, cries are silent and subtle. “If we see unexpected changes in mood, it would be important to reach out,” one teen suggested. Another counseled “If a friend’s habits change unexpectedly, it is never a mistake to ask if they are okay.” I reminded them, even if we see a stranger who appears to be sad, we can always offer assistance or just a smile. “Remember, when someone needs support, you are not responsible to solve their problems. You only have to help get them to someone who can.”

The actors replayed the final moments of the skit. But this time, the struggling teen’s friends picked up on her sadness and anxiety and insisted she come with them to get help. That version was truly lifesaving.

As we discussed the second performance, we agreed it is difficult to ask for help, especially for teens. We recounted many reasons. “I’m the strong one. If my friends and family find out I am struggling…they’d be disappointed.” “My father is out of work and we have no insurance.” “I don’t want to be a burden on others.” “My parents are under a lot of stress because my uncle is dying from cancer.” “My sister is already in counseling. I can’t tell my parents I need it too.” “My mother is a single parent. She is stressed enough already.” The list is endless.

But then, one teen spoke up. “I think many people, especially teens, don’t ask for help because they don’t think they deserve it.” That nearly brought me to my knees.

An hour before the session began, as I reflected on the upcoming events, I recalled a conversation with a friend 25 years earlier. He asked if I believed in fairness. The question was startling, nevertheless, I assured him I did. “If you were at a dinner and the dessert tray had only two pieces of the pie you wanted, and one was clearly larger that the other, which would you take?” Since the question didn’t require deep contemplation. I told him I’d likely take the smaller one. “Always?” he pressed. This time I thought, but only for a moment. “Yes, probably.” “Ah,” he shot back, “then you really don’t believe in fairness, do you?”

I repeated that ancient exchange to the students and adults in front of me. I then recounted the many reasons we don’t ask for help. Is it possible, I asked, that, when life is dispensing love and support, we’re too willing to give others the larger slice? “It’s unreasonable,” I acknowledged, “to always be first in line, but, if we continually put ourselves last, perhaps we really don’t believe in fairness.”

We tell ourselves it is better to give than to receive. I believe that. But, if we believe in offering love, kindness, and generosity to all humans, then doesn’t the person we see every morning in the mirror, deserve to receive an equal share from us as well?

*Operation Snowball is a teen leadership program for which I am an adult volunteer.

Jun 102015
 

Note: This has been submitted for the July/August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Humanity is, I believe, on the cusp of a new era. Depending on the choices we make, the future will be informed by wisdom beyond our dreams, or imbued with ignorance and wanting.

Am I alone in feeling that many of our species’ collective actions seem self-centered and selfish? It’s as if we are still in our adolescence searching for identity. We grab Earth’s resources because exerting power over Mother Earth—or as I prefer, Pacha Mama—affirms an identity we doubt.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of the hero’s journey, an individual’s passage through the depths and darkness, emerging on the other side with wisdom and sagacity, the profundity of which can only come from the struggle. What most separates youth from elderhood is a deep understanding and acceptance of self, much of which comes from the many struggles through which we visit the depths and return, burnished, refined and wiser…less ego-imbued, self-centered and selfish.

The people we embrace as wisdom keepers throughout history were, at some point, torn asunder by journeys of nearly unfathomable pain and heartbreak, only to return with an extraordinary understanding of what it means to be human. Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s ego-crushing years in prison comes to mind.

As a species, we have faced many journeys through the darkness: world wars, genocides, famines and natural disasters. We have gained wisdom from each, but we seem to forget so rapidly, returning to wasteful, selfish ways—ignorant of the delicate, life-giving balance of the planet. Today, we deplete precious resources at increasingly alarming rates.

Perhaps the hero’s journey that will provide lasting wisdom—move us closer to elderhood of the species—is yet to come.

My brother-in-law, Professor Emeritus of Geology at the University of Hawai’i, has spoken of a world depleted of oil…a world he feels is approaching swiftly, much sooner than we can find alternatives. Having read and listened, it is an often frightening picture that can include famine, institutional collapse and chaos. Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus from Harvard, once referred to the 21st century as the bottleneck humanity must negotiate if we are to survive.

I wonder if what lies ahead is a collective hero’s journey unlike those through which we have already traversed. A journey that will refine and burnish the species in ways we cannot yet imagine. If such a journey is in our future, I also wonder if we will find the courage to endure the depths required for our resurrection as wiser, more mature inhabitants of the Earth…to move as a species from adolescence into elderhood.

If we do find the courage to make generosity and compassion our dominant voice, those moments are perhaps the greatest opportunities we have ever had for acquiring wisdom. If we do not, I fear we will never advance beyond our current selfish ignorance.

We could be standing at the doorway, upon a huge welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pacha Mama the next epoch of her future. Not a future separate from humanity and not a future for humanity separate from Mother Nature. But a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined; a future in which we finally understand and fully respect our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species. The next century offers us an advanced degree in existentialism. Why do we exist? Do we truly belong here in this Universe? And if we do, what is our role and how should we be in relation to life itself.

If the hero’s journey I am suggesting transpires, we are approaching a time during which we can allow Pacha Mama to extract from us, individually and collectively, the infinite wisdom of which we are capable. That future holds for all creatures, riches of joy, wisdom, generosity, understanding and love beyond anything we have ever imagined, or ever could imagine. Will we get there without pain, heartache, suffering and sadness? That would contradict the very definition of wisdom. Will the riches we will discover be commensurate with the heartache and suffering we may face? Not only is it possible, I believe the wisdom available to us far exceeds the price we are asked to pay.

I fervently believe it is human nature to be generous rather than selfish. When we stop long enough to re-connect with parts of the biosphere from which we have become aliens, I hope we will re-member we are part of a much larger whole.

I must have hope. Because if I lose hope, what have I left?

Dec 182013
 
Note:The following will appear in the January/February Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
 
For more reasons than I can recount, I chose well the day I proposed to my bride. Not only is she from Hawai’i and “forces” me to visit her immediate family in Honolulu, but she has family in Thailand and Malaysia as well. We recently embarked on a long-delayed journey to meet them for the first time.
I have loved my in-laws for many years. Now that I have met the extended family in the Far East, I have many more to love…and admire. Being in the presence of a warm and generous family can leave you in awe, but that is an insufficient descriptor for the depth of my love and respect.
I learned of their generosity and acceptance our first night in Malaysia. In a wonderful seafood restaurant, I struggled with chopsticks to extract crabmeat from a tenacious shell and claws. I was the only one with seafood and sauce strewn across the tablecloth. When one last bit of crabmeat escaped the death-grip with which my fingers juggled those two tiny pieces of wood—and splashed another puddle of sauce across the tablecloth—I was mortified and did my best to hide the mayhem with my napkin. One young nephew sitting next to me, with the most understanding gaze, turned to me and said “It’s okay…don’t worry.” It was a generous moment of acceptance I will not soon forget.
The Saturday night we spent in their home, more than 50 family members gathered for an evening of food, fun and festivities. I have seldom seen such a well-orchestrated feast as the family unveiled a cornucopia of cultural treats…and more joy and love than one could imagine.
The final night we were there, after far too many glasses of scotch, they even coaxed yours truly to take to the microphone for karaoke.
If you could choose a family to call your own, it would be difficult to find one more life-affirming. And yet, this family was nearly ripped apart many years ago. When the patriarch, Ivan, was just 19, both his parents departed this earth, leaving him to care for four younger siblings.
I have only the most rudimentary sense of the anguish of leaving a young family to fend for themselves. Many years ago, on a weekend retreat with my daughter, a teen recounted the death of her father when she was in eighth grade. She described the unfathomable grief and heartache that gets only marginally easier as the years pass. In the ensuing moments, I realized, in a way I had not prior, that I will likely depart this earth leaving my children behind to face the world alone. The separation, loneliness and grief brought me to my knees. That night I literally cried myself to sleep. How could I possibly say goodbye to the children who so animate my life and give it meaning?
Before we left Malaysia, I thanked Ivan and his wife for fulfilling his parents’ deepest longings. “I can only imagine,” I told them, “that your parents would be grateful to know their children are well, happy, and loved.” Ivan looked at me with a gentle smile that spoke of his humility and gratitude and said, “I hope so.”
As I sit here, I can easily be brought to my knees again at the thought of leaving my children alone and vulnerable to the vagaries of life. But now, the pain eases just a bit. Ivan reminded me of the indomitable human spirit and our ability to survive and thrive even in the face of unbearable loss.

 

And I am grateful to my bride and her family whose love, support and encouragement make all these experiences, thoughts and words possible.
Jun 222012
 

 

I was a newly-minted MBA moving from an entry-level position to a job selling catalysts in the oil industry. The sales manager, Jim Trecek, arranged for me to spend a week under the tutelage of a renowned salesman in Toronto. His name was Pat McLaughlin.
I arrived at the Toronto airport before Pat, and waited anxiously in my MBA attire—suit and wingtips—hoping to give an appropriate first impression. He spotted me from halfway across the terminal; my rookie patina shown brightly. As he approached, he ignored the carefully planned wardrobe, looked me in the eye and said “I told that Jim Trecek not to send any of you young shits up here to follow me around with a clipboard!” A fleeting glint in his eye shown even more brightly than my rookie façade. This was Pat’s way of welcoming me, and encouraging me not to take what he said, or anything that happened, too seriously. He made it clear I had three responsibilities: open the doors, buy him cigars and pay for lunch. In return, every time he made the slightest misstep, I pretended to pull out a clipboard and make note.
Through uncountable guffaws, and hours of side-splitting laughter, I fell in love with this kind-hearted, amazing man. Over the next five years I had the good fortune of working with Pat in a number of capacities. For two years, I was a sales manager in the Toronto office and got to see him almost everyday—we regularly broke bread together.
The company we worked for had an annual award—the Golden Oval—given only to the best sales people. Any professional was fortunate to win it once. Pat McLaughlin won it numerous times. He loved his customers and only wanted to be of service. He lived for any moment he could solve a problem and make a customer’s life easier. His customers loved to see him because they knew he would never take advantage of them; he could be trusted implicitly. It also helped that Pat had a seemingly infinite repertoire of stories and jokes that kept everyone in his life laughing.
On a recent vacation to visit Judi’s family in Hawai’i, I spent time with a number of ancient texts. In most, our spiritual journey and professional life were never separate or distinct. “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” simply had no meaning in the language of that world. Life’s labors were never intended to be an inconvenience that allowed us to live a different life in the evening, on weekends and vacations, or following retirement. Life’s labors were fundamental in the discovery who we are and how we relate to the world. And only after we make that discovery can life’s tasks be completed most harmoniously with life itself.
I doubt Pat McLaughlin read many ancient spiritual texts. I suspect he never thought of himself as enlightened. What I know is that he had a way of creating harmony in the world by the kind and generous way he shared himself with every human he encountered. He certainly did in my life. In the end, cancer is the cause we assign to Pat’s passing, but I wonder if, in retirement, Pat lost his way of creating harmony with life, and so life simply left him. 30 years later, I still miss him greatly.

 

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…