Dec 182014
 

Note: The following will be published in the January issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

His smile is huge and welcoming, and he has a personality to match. He admitted he is uncomfortable with hugs and tears, but on an Operation Snowball weekend, taking off the masks we wear to protect ourselves, and being vulnerable, is an invaluable part of the experience.

In spite of the tough veneer, there was a moment the façade unexpectedly slipped. As he spoke innocently of his family, he began to tell us of his birth-father—his parents had divorced many years earlier. “My Dad is my hero,” he began innocently enough, but as he continued his eyes welled up and he tried desperately to hold back the tears. “As a young man, he was in a gang—it’s part of the reason he and my mother split. But, about the time I was born, he straightened out his life. He works harder than anyone I know. I love him so much.” With that, he wiped the tears that made their way down his face.

“Have you ever told him what you just told us?” I asked. “I’ve tried,” he said. “It’s really hard, but sometimes as I’m leaving, I’ll turn and tell him I love him.” “No,” I pressed, “Have you ever looked him square in the eye and said ‘Dad, you are my hero. I love you more than I can even say.’” He stared at the floor and admitted he had not.

Why, when we see magnificence in another, especially one we love, do we frequently find it difficult to acknowledge? Perhaps it’s because a moment of affirmation requires vulnerability from both giver and receiver. When I am honored by another, it can trigger memories of the frailties I often believe define me. I can become embarrassed and confused in the face of sincere, caring affirmation and deflect the recognition…and in my inelegance, embarrass the person who only wants me to see something wonderful within.

What if, in an unexpectedly touching moment with his son, a formerly tough gang member, in confusion and embarrassment, blurted, “Don’t be silly, I’m not that great!” All the son might hear from the man he adores is the crushing implication he is silly.

Later that weekend, I sought out that young man. “At the risk of pushing too hard and being a pain in your backside, may I tell you a story?” “Sure,” he said with a curious smile.

“My daughter invited me to join her on a Snowball weekend when she was a sophomore in high school. Snowball changed my life and I am grateful beyond measure. At her last event as a senior, I pulled her aside one last time to tell her how thankful I was she invited me on this journey we shared. She looked me in the eye and said ‘Dad, I truly believe the reason I got involved was to bring you here. You are my gift to Snowball.’ I was stunned.”

“That was more than six years ago,” I continued, “yet, I remember that moment as if it was yesterday. I will take those words with me to my grave. If you tell your father how much you love and admire him, don’t be deterred if his initial reaction is tainted by confusion and embarrassment. In the end, I am certain he will, as well, carry your words with him until the day he dies.”

At the end of the weekend, that “tough” young man left a note for me in which he said I was the sweetest man on Earth and that he loved me. And now, despite my own embarrassment, tears are having their way with me.

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I believe in always committing myself to more wholehearted living. So, as I move into the year 2015, I will try diligently to speak to those I love of the joy I find in their presence in my life, and try even more diligently, when told of their joy at my presence in their life, to acknowledge their affirmation with grace, gratitude and humility.

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.

Mar 312012
 

 

Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.
                                                         Amy Bloom
In my February blog entitle “On Being Fully Human,” I wrote about three leaders, each of whom allowed inhumanity to slip into the “edges” of their lives.
When I penned those words, I had not yet read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I have now, and it’s clear he did more than allow inhumanity to slip into the edges of his life. The brash, rude manner in which he treated people was deeply ingrained into nearly everything he did from a very young age. Often, the nicest thing he would say about another’s creative idea was “Well, it’s a start.” More likely he would call them stupid, crap…or worse. He was famous for rejecting another’s idea, only to return weeks later claiming it as his own. In his view, most people were “A players” or “bozos”. There was little space betwixt his neural synapses for other categories of humanity.
As I read Isaacson’s rendition of the life of Jobs, I attended a lunch sponsored by Aurora University with brief remarks by Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. The Greenleaf Center is based on management philosophies espoused by Robert K. Greenleaf during the latter half of the 20th Century. The leader as servant is similar to the Level-5 leader described in the best-selling book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. The Servant/Level 5 leader is one who leads with humility. They show care and concern for those who must do the organization’s bidding. Using traditional definitions, these leaders have more intimacy with their employees. Greenleaf, Collins and Porras all proposed that the leader who is first-and-foremost servant, is best prepared to create an enduring organization. A leader at the other end of the spectrum might create short-term success, but the chances of an enduring legacy are remote.
Enter Steve Jobs. As you read the Isaacson account, intimacy is perhaps the last word you would use to describe his relationships. Had Collins, Porras or Greenleaf been handed a nameless profile of Jobs and his management style, they likely would have concluded he had no chance of doing precisely what he did: create two—Apple and Pixar—of the most admired brands on the planet and a company that, even after his death, retains one of the highest market values of any corporation ever conceived. It would be difficult to call his 40 years of revolutionizing computers, movies, music, cell phones and more, short-term success. Many who worked with him, in spite of the way he treated them, speak of him affectionately, even reverently.
Few books leave me in tears as I read the final words. This one did and I have wondered why. Perhaps there is an unexpected clue in the words of Amy Bloom where I began this entry. I hope, before I die, I will have looked deeply, discovered who I truly am, and found the courage to be seen and known as that person…and thereby have a truly intimate relationship with the world. I have come to conclude that Steve Jobs, with all his faults, did precisely that his entire life. Perhaps it was that intimacy that enabled him, and those around him, to change the world.