Aug 052014
 

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Frederick Buechner

In an interview with Peter Block many years ago I asked about the nature of our gifts. “We’re blind to our capacities. If you ask people what their strengths are, the list they come up with is pathetic. It’s crude and immature. ‘I’m hard-working…I like people…I’m loyal…I’m a good problem solver.’ Ask them their weaknesses and, oh God, you get poetry. They go on and on like an artist.”

When I announced I was leaving my position as Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, myriad questions arose from friends and colleagues. “Are you retiring?” “What’s next?” “Do you have another job?”

The answers I offered seemed feeble in this culture of plans, to-do lists and 5-year goals. I tried to explain I was not looking for a job, I was in search for my calling…my vocation. I was looking for that place to which God had always called me; a place that was simultaneously unknown and feared.

But how could I find that place? I felt rudderless and lost. I had few models of those who sought that space, unique for each human, where their deep gladness met the world’s great need.

I took comfort and direction from the wisdom I learned from improvisational pianist Michael Jones. The gifts of his music came so easily and naturally, he felt anyone could sit at a keyboard and play. So it is with each of us. When confronted with the truth of our gifts, if we don’t say it out loud, there is that internal voice of denial. “It’s no big deal. Anyone could do that,” we hear ourselves proclaiming. We assume the person speaking is just being polite because what they see in us is nothing special.

If I have wealth, it emanates from the love and care so many have shown me. After years running the fireworks, honoring the victims of September 11, exploring the fissures that so often separate us and showing up with authenticity and vulnerability, I have many truth-tellers in my life. I set out to find those who knew me well and would speak with honesty. I approached, told them the story of Michael Jones and explained how difficult it is for each of us to see our own unique gifts. Everyone understood the depth and meaning of that message. Then I asked if they would tell me what they saw in me that I was unable, or unwilling, to see in myself.

Being vulnerable in public does not take nearly the courage it takes to be vulnerable with ourselves. When I sit with a person who knows and cares about me—a truth-teller—I have to quiet the voice that wishes to deny; the one that screams “NO! Don’t you understand, what you think you see in me see is no big deal. Anyone could do that.” To deny what they see is to disrespect a person who, in love and generosity, is offering the greatest gift they can—a mirror into my own heart and soul. To deny is, perhaps, to disrespect the very voice of God.

One of the most telling phrases came from a woman who I helped as she struggled to start a small business. As I told her the tale of Michael Jones and asked if she would reflect on what she saw in me, she stopped me mid-sentence, looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’ll tell you now. You listen and then you speak. I know because that is what you did for me.”

So in honor of all those who so generously spoke of my gifts, here is what I heard. I do listen to the world broadly. I listen to the stories and wisdom of the thousands of people who have reached out on the suicide hotline. I have listened through the wisdom of the hundreds of authors who have so generously gifted us with their perspectives. I have listened to the yearnings of members of my community who long for their stories to be heard. I have listened to hundreds of teens in Operation Snowball who struggle to find their identity and place in the world. I have listened to my heart as I try to make sense of the cacophony I often experience in the world.

Then, as I listen, I draw what I have heard into the experience that is my life, and through my own sense of truth, and speak to the world in the nuances that come through me. I try to honor those who tell me I have a gift to say what they have felt, but been unable to put into words.

And, with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, quieting that voice of denial, I believe I do these things well.

Apr 022014
 

Note: The following will appear in the May/June Issue of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

If I asked, would you tell me of your gifts—the unique, stunning aspects of your humanity and journey that make you like no other human ever born? Even if you were able, would you be willing? Or would you, like so many, feel anxious and find yourself filled with unknowing and confusion? Even worse, would you feel compelled to say there is nothing stunning about you?

A friend, Michael Jones, is an exceptional improvisational pianist and elder. When Michael’s fingertips fall upon a keyboard, he and the piano become one, and glorious melodies emerge from them unbidden.Michael Jones Pianoscapes - Transforming Leadership, Awakening the Commons of the Imagination

Michael bared his soul to me in 1998 when we recorded, and subsequently published, a marvelous interview. We sat next to his magnificent Bosendorfer grand piano as he spoke of his journey, and how his inner flame was nearly extinguished when he was very young. I asked how such a gift could be lost. “It came in bringing a piece of my music to a piano lesson. My teacher, a very kindly person, expressed relatively little real interest. The real work was to play the masters. This creation of mine wasn’t going to measure up. I felt embarrassed and self-conscious.”

Michael’s journey was altered many years later when an elderly stranger caught him playing what appeared to be a secluded piano in a quiet hotel lobby. When Michael tried to disavow the splendor and uniqueness of his musical gifts, this unexpected guide asked him “Who is going to play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Michael has since shared his music on more than a dozen CDs with millions sold around the world. “To think,” Michael confided in me, “there was that much music I was carrying inside and had no sense was there. We have no perception of what is waiting to be made manifest.”

What would Michael say to that elderly gentleman today? “I would thank all those people who—in that moment of perception and courage—have been able to see into the essence of the other and give it voice. That’s how we can best serve one another…to see in the other what they cannot safely see in themselves.”

Michael went on to say, “We don’t get help in our culture to understand what it means to belong to ourselves and the world. There are many cultures where musicians would never think of playing anybody else’s music! In the West we play almost exclusively other people’s music— as a metaphor, but also literally. We feel embarrassed to bring something that is our own.”

We see the gifts that come to us most naturally as nothing special. “That’s easy,” we say to ourselves and the world, “anyone could do that!”

“More people are becoming aware there is deeper music in their life…sensing the call to let their lives and work be a reflection of that music,” Michael suggested. “The challenge is, we have to put aside the script…the musical score. When that gentleman spoke to me, I felt absolute clarity in terms of what was significant in my life, but I was totally lost in terms of what to do with it. Being lost is part of the journey. There is something we need to access within ourselves that only arises when we feel lost, confused or uncertain. There is the tradition that says, if you can see the path clearly laid in front of you, chances are you’ve stumbled onto someone else’s path!”

As I have struggled to discern my path in this world, I have asked those who know me and care for me to help me see what I cannot safely see in myself. Then, when a friend leans in close and points me in the direction of my music, I struggle to quiet the voice that screams in dissent, “Anyone could do that!

So, when you find yourself lost, confused and uncertain, take comfort in knowing that this just may be your rightful path for now. Then consider seeking out guides who know and love you. Listen, and seek the courage to believe what they tell you. Finally, thank them for their willingness to see into the essence of the other and give it voice.

You can hear Michael’s glorious melodies, and tap into more of his wisdom, at pianoscapes.com.

Aug 072013
 

The following will appear in the September/October edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The truth of who we are is betwixt and between…and we need courage to find it.
The St. Charles middle schools recently hosted an Operation Snowflake event. Like Operation Snowball, which is for high school students, Snowflake is for 6th, 7th and 8th graders and is intended to be a place where students can be with peers who want to live a healthy lifestyle. I was asked to be the “motivational speaker” speaker that afternoon.
I thought long and hard about the message I wanted to impart; I wrote and rewrote my remarks many times. The night before the event, a teen at Operation Snowball spoke of the debilitating bullying to which he had been subjected during his years in middle school. I was so taken by his remarks, I found it difficult to sleep and awoke early the next morning and reworked my remarks one last time.
Either bullying was not the cultural tsunami it is today, or I was simply fortunate to have escaped its devastation…at least from other teens in my life. Yet I recall 7th and 8th grades as two of the loneliest years of my life. Episodes that seem trivial today, 50 years ago as an insecure and fragile human being, seemed large and unrelenting…their consequences insurmountable.
I remember a Jungian psychologist who suggested that, throughout the early years of life, we get messages from parents, family and friends about who we need to be in order to be loved or even lovable. What we must eventually discern, if we ever hope to liberate ourselves from the assault, is that few, if any, of those people know who we are at the core of our being. What makes those years terrifying and lonely is that we fall short in our attempt to be who others demand we become. Since we are someone else, it is easy to wedge a knife into the gap and twist it in such a way the pain becomes excruciating.
So that afternoon I touched on bullying. We agreed that bullying is—whether physically, mentally or emotionally—to make someone feel badly about who they are in the world. When I shared how the teen who became the man who pens these words, seldom had kind words for himself, I asked if they thought I was bullied…and who the most hurtful perpetrator was. Many realized I was, in fact, the most unforgiving bully I had to face every day.
My maternal grandmother was a woman I adored; she loved me greatly. If only I had the wisdom and courage, in moments of despair, to seek her counsel. “What I see of my life, and what I see of me, often leaves me sad and lonely. Would you be willing to tell me what you see?” She would have had amazing words of encouragement and affirmation.
And so, my final admonition for the young people of Snowflake was, in the moments when life seems unrelenting and insurmountable, find an elder who loves you and will walk with you into the truth as they see it. Tell them of your angst, fear and loneliness and ask what they see. That can be very difficult—I never had the courage to try. But the far more arduous task is to believe what they tell you. Trusting another to help us express who we are is one of the most courageous things we can attempt.
Trying to get 6th, 7th and 8th graders to sit still long enough hear my message just may be the second most courageous thing I have ever attempted. I left Operation Snowflake feeling as though I was unable to connect with those young people in the way I had hoped. And yes, many subsequent moments have been consumed beating myself up over the perceived failure. Fortunately, other adults who were in the room have said very kind things about my attempt.
Since we are often unable to see our gifts, we must look to others in the community to help us discern them. The truth of who we are in the world is betwixt and between our self-deprecation and others’ generosity. We just need the courage, when we are betwixt and between, to listen more attentively to the generous, loving words available to us. I wish now I had had the courage to ask my grandmother what she saw.
Feb 032013
 


Many operate from a belief that organizations, and lives, can be made successful through well-planned strategies and goals, supported by tightly-scheduled to-do lists. I have always questioned this belief system, and have never lived my life this way, Perhaps I am just looking to justify my obstinacy, however, a new book, Antifragile by Nassim Nicolas Taleb, has added fuel to the fire that burns within.

 
In 1980, as a candidate for a Master of Science in Management at the Sloan School at MIT, I enrolled in the requisite course in corporate strategy, taught by Professor Mel Horwitz.
 
We spent the semester studying exceptional corporations—those that exhibited results orders of magnitude better than average. The thesis of the course was simple: if we peer into the minds of management and discern the strategies that led down the road to success, we could repeat, or surpass their triumph.
 
Near the end of the term, I asked a question. “Dr. Horwitz,” I began, “if we were to take a random sample of 1000 companies today, follow them for 20 or 30 years and plot their results on a chart, those results would undoubtedly form some sort of distribution, perhaps even a normal curve. Most of the companies would have moderate results—a bit above or below the average. There would undoubtedly be those whose results were far below average, and a few with results that beat the average in spectacular ways; it is the nature of the law of averages. That being the case, what is the possibility that we spent the semester simply studying the statistical outliers and nothing more. Is it possible their results had little to do with an extraordinary ability to peer into the future and divine a path to success? Could we simply be studying the lucky?” Suffice to say the kindly Professor Horwitz did not like the question.
 
Enter Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb believes what we did in graduate school—showing in hind-sight that a carefully followed strategy led to great results—is equivalent to lecturing a bird on flying, and then, after they have taken flight, claiming it was our cogent, insightful words that delivered the remarkable result. To fly is natural. After months of experimentation and “tinkering,” a fledgling takes flight by courageously stepping out of the nest and trusting she merely needs to spread her wings.
 
Creativity, innovation and success are driven, not by well-planned strategies and tightly-schedule action plans, but through rabid tinkering and experimentation. Doubtful? Two words: Steve Jobs.
 
My thinking was clarified dramatically in a recent conversation with an intensive care nurse. She has been with hundreds the moment they passed from this life to the next. “The expression I see most often as a life ends is regret. It is as if they are asking ‘Is this all my life amounts to?’”
 
I don’t know what allows a person to leave this life with a deep sense of satisfaction, but I have a hunch. It is not by checking one last item off a life-long list. I have never witnessed a bird with a checklist in advance of first flight…or for that matter, blueprints on how to build the nest from which to leap.
 
If I never have the courage to spread my wings and leap into the unknown, will the final expression on my face be a fait accompli?
Sep 192012
 

 

A recent, innocent-sounding Facebook message from a friend brought back a childhood memory…one I was not eager to relive. But the experience is teaching me a great deal about what it means to be alive.
The message pointed me to two TED.com talks by Brené Brown. If you have not spent time with TED you are missing an opportunity to become acquainted with some of the world’s great thinkers. “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.”
Brené is a social scientist whose path, much to her chagrin, led her to the study of three of humanity’s most personal, difficult and unpredictable places: guilt, shame and vulnerability.
In one of those talks Brené says guilt is reflected in “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Shame in “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Seldom have I felt the definitional crevasse between two words open so quickly and with such depth. The moment I heard the phrase “I am a mistake” I knew its meaning…what I did not know was the origin of my understanding. At least, not until 12:30 a.m. the following morning.
His name is Kenneth Alan Breisch and, by two years, he is my older brother. Anyone in the family can relate how, as young siblings, we did not get along. We fought frequently enough, and with such malice, I’m quite certain my Mother worried one of us would kill the other. Neither of us ever wanted that, but the stupidity with which we clashed, who knows what might have happened…even by accident. Ironically, I don’t remember a single thing we argued about. Looking back, it was never about the topic; it was always about the relationship.
In one particularly vicious episode, there came a moment when I just wanted him hurt. I recall running away in the middle of the tumult, and chose the door to the garage as my escape. I so wish I had not. There, in the middle of the floor sat the pieces of a dollhouse Ken was carefully crafting for our younger sister, Barb. One wall of the miniature edifice lay vulnerable, leaning up against another. I leapt, and came down on its midsection, breaking it in two. Perhaps I felt that in breaking it, he too would be broken.
Snapping a piece of wood might seem a trivial event to trigger feelings of shame and worthlessness, but life is not defined by the external. It is never the act itself that defines us; it is who we perceive ourselves to be in the moment of acting that burns itself into our psyche and our soul. I can still feel that moment as if in slow motion. As I rose into the air, I felt the mix of my anger, the pride he had in his creativity and workmanship, and the love he felt for Barb—love he carved into every piece of that tiny home. Even as I was momentarily suspended in midair, I knew what I was doing was wrong, hurtful and represented a kind of violence I have seldom felt.
Saying, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” does nothing to erase the way I feel about that moment. In spite of the oft-used phrase “God never makes mistakes,” after more than 50 years, I can still hear that tiny voice hinting that perhaps God blinked momentarily and let one slip by. And while it is difficult to admit to such a moment in life, we all have them. And when we do, it is important to quiet that voice that wants to condemn, because it is wrong!
In her wonderful new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brené says, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Join me, if you will, in a toast to ownership of, and engagement with, life.
Aug 262012
 

 

Tomorrow morning you will begin a chapter in your life beyond my understanding. I could not be more proud—more in awe—than I am. You have worked diligently to arrive at this moment, and in that journey I have witnessed in you a sense of purpose, dedication and joy, the depths of which astound me. The strength you have called upon to arrive here is inspiring.
The journey you and your cohorts from Teach For America will embark upon is courageous, important…and overwhelming. Last week. Andrew said that, while his task is to teach middle school science, his goal is nothing short of breaking the cycle of poverty. Millions have tried, and poverty still persists. But try we must, and I am thankful for the 5000 TFA corps members who will begin this year to help ensure that an excellent education be available to every child. I believe it was the theologian Frederick Buechner who first wrote that vocation is where our great joy meets the world’s great need. From what I witnessed last week in Baltimore, you and your cohorts have found that vocation.
As you begin, I know there will be moments of overwhelm…many times you will be tempted to use the word failure to describe a time spent with your students. But remember this; no act of love and caring ever deserves such a moniker.
As you move into the coming days, weeks and months, life will hand you crises…times in which you may feel lost, confused and even alone. You have the strength, wisdom and creativity to overcome the loss and confusion, and you have friends surrounding you to help you feel less alone. Your Mother and I are here, and we believe in you with every ounce of our being.
I once told you of the time when I was in high school and a huge banner of Snoopy hung in our church. He was smiling and leaping into the air; the inscription below said “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God on Earth.” If that is true, than the joy I feel at this moment for having you in my life, is that most infallible sign.
Go get ‘em Pumpkin…the world awaits your great joy.
Aug 202012
 

 

Today, as I begin the second year of my seventh decade—with kind and generous missives filling my microscopic corner of Cyberspace—I struggle to understand the clash of gratitude and sadness with which I sit.
A few hours ago, Judi and I left “Charm City”, the place our daughter has taken up residence for two years following her tenure at Illinois Wesleyan University. If you are unaware, as I was until three days ago, CharmCity is a moniker pinned upon the city of Baltimore, Maryland as an unintended consequence of marketing promotion in the early 1970s.
As I sit in the lobby of the hotel that marks the half-way point of our journey home, the clash of emotions I struggle to understand emanate from a few brief moments gifted to me by Kathryn and her fellow Teach For America corps members. This is an amazing group with whom she will share uncountable moments of laughter and joy, spawned by days marked by success; and perhaps just as many tinged by and tears and heartbreak as a result of best efforts that fall just short of their extraordinary dreams.
Just 23 years ago, Wendy Kopp proposed the idea for Teach For America in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis. Since then, nearly 33,000 participants have reached more than 3 million children nationwide with a simple but ennobling vision for America: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”
To meet members of the 2012 corps, you cannot help but recognize them as cohorts in education. But in meeting them, you would expect them to be headed for the halls of America’s best graduate schools—not the hallways and classrooms of the nation’s most lost and neglected elementary and high schools. These amazing young adults are bright, articulate and determined. But what truly sets them apart is their incredible passion for what they are about to undertake. As we sat at breakfast yesterday morning, Andrew, who is headed for an underprivileged middle school science classroom, explained that while science is his medium, his goal is nothing less than “to break the cycle of poverty in America.” This was not the sentiment of one isolated member of this corps; it is shared by more than 5000 of his cohorts stationed across the United States, waiting for their moment to begin.
In order to have this opportunity to change the lives of those so often lost, these newly minted graduates have been through extraordinary preparation: a difficult selection process, challenging praxis exams and a grueling 5-week program to draw out their natural ability to help those around them discover the intricacies and importance of the subjects they have chosen.
Just after I woke this morning, my phone buzzed, indicating another birthday wish had fallen from Cyberspace; this one from a new friend on Facebook. Ironically, this message was from a former student, from the days in the late 1970s when I taught high school math, coincidently not too many hours from Charm City.
It is from this message, and my three days with Kathryn and her friends, that the tangle of emotions arises. I know intimately those moments of extraordinary joy when you look into—and through—the eyes of a young protégé and suddenly understand the wonders and intricacies of the Universe in a nuanced new way. While the word was not used this past weekend, it is in those moments we truly understand what it means to love.
What I cannot know, what I may never know, is the sadness they will experience…sadness seeded by the depth of their dreams, and their hopes for their students and the world. When I began teaching, I did not even know such dreams were possible.
When what we want for this world is informed by the depth of our greatest passions and animated by our uninhibited generosity, the inevitable setbacks, no matter how small, tear deeply into our very being. It is that deep pain that is the price we pay for love.

 

Aug 152012
 

 

I have been reading Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have, a wonderful new book by a favorite author, James Autry. He penned an essay entitled “To Serve & Protect” in which he speaks of the difficulties of the honorable profession of being a police officer. In my work related to suicide prevention I have come to learn, as a group, they face one of the highest suicide rates of any profession…the reasons are numerous and complex. In 2007 and 2008, the City of Batavia lost two officers to suicide. Below are words I discovered to honor them.
 
It’s too late to thank Mike Rappley and Carl Ensign, members of the Batavia Police Department, who, for reasons we will never fully understand, found their lives so unbearable that they chose to end them.
In the wake of their deaths, I have been thinking about ways I silently mistreat the men and women whose lives revolve around the simple pledge to “serve and protect.” In fulfilling this sacred oath, they often find themselves in the position of interrupting the normal flow of life—stopping me for a violation or redirecting a trip home to deliver me safely past an accident or construction project. And when that interruption impacts my life, they are too often the recipients of my frustration and anger.
Years ago, I spent time with an officer in his patrol car. In those hours, there wasn’t an opportunity for anyone to affirm him for his work. In fact, since his time was spent inserting himself between the lawful and unlawful sides of our society—facing only the unlawful side—I couldn’t imagine when a kind word or a simple thank you would be part of his job. These servants typically face only danger, sadness and criticism. They halt dangerous practices in the community, end domestic disputes and wake us in the middle of the night when a loved one is lost to one of life’s many tragedies. We have even come to rely on them to resolve neighborhood disagreements we have become too timid to face personally.
The word respect is based on a root that means to look. Re-spect means to “look again.” We respect another when we take off our blinders—reflect on our biases and limited interpretations of life—and look with fresh eyes at who they really are. Since Carl’s death, I have been trying to show my respect for the men and women of the Batavia Police Department by looking again at the many things they do to make this community a safe and magnificent place to live.
So, to every member of the Department, even if you cannot see it next time I pass you on the street, know that I will be saluting you for all you do. Thank you.
 
Post Script…to this day, four years later, I still salute every police officer I encounter.
Jul 102012
 
Too often, that which has the capacity to make our lives most fulfilling leaves us precisely when we need it most.
I was reminded recently that in any two-person conversation, at least six personalities show up.
On your end are two versions of you: (P1) the real you—the person you are in that place of deep trust, honesty and love; and, (P2) the you who actually speaks—complicated by your past, culture, emotional highs and lows, biases and prejudices.
Speaking from the other end are the same two versions of your partner (P3 & P4).
The final two people who participate are (P5) your biased version of your partner and (P6) his or her biased version of you. They do not see you as either of the two people who represent you, and you do not see them as either version of themselves.
Lets recap:
P1—Real, sincere you
P2—Complicated you
P3—Real, sincere partner
P4—Complicated partner
P5—The partner you perceive
P6—The you your partner perceives
Let’s take this buggy for a spin and see how it rides. Scenario: You are a mom who walks into your teenage son’s room…it’s a disaster! You storm out of the room. P1, the loving Mom who walked into the room has left the building, replaced by P2, the Mom who suddenly fears the boy she loves is destined to end up on drugs and in the gutter!
Meanwhile, the son just texted his girlfriend. They’re going to a movie and he needs the car.
You and your son meet—or shall I say collide—in the kitchen.
P3, the son who just spent an hour straightening up his room and feels pretty good about his progress, lets loose with the opening salvo. “Mom, can borrow the car to take Shelly to the movies at 7?”
“Are you kidding,” says frightened Mom (P2) to her son who she now sees as slovenly, selfish and ungrateful (P5). “Not until you clean your room!”
Happy, carefree son (P3) has now exited, replaced by P4, the son who is suddenly ultra defensive and sees you as too demanding…a person who never credits him with anything (P6). “All she ever sees,” he convinces himself, “are the few, little things I forget to do!”
P2 is now talking to P5 and P4 is replying to P6! Confused? Ever have a similar encounter with family, neighbors, customers, suppliers, co-workers…or the mechanic you think overcharged you for car repairs?
If the conversation includes five people, trust me, hundreds of personalities vie for a hearing.
Why is it, when we most need to be the essence of our best self, we get lost in the emotion of the moment and show up as someone we often don’t even recognize?
The truth is, I misspoke when I suggested six personalities show up in a conversation between two people. If you review the collision between you and your son, the trusting, honest, loving people both of you have the capacity to be, exit the conversation early and never reappear.
How might we invite our true and authentic self to remain in the world…and extend the same invitation to those about whom we care most? I think we might be astonished by life if you and I could talk, and leave the other four out of the conversation.

 

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…