Jan 292016
 

Note: The following will appear in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Since leaving my last job, when asked about the next phase of life, I generally reply “I’m seeking my vocation.” As it turns out, my vocation has been in search of me, but I was deaf to its call. Vocations, I have come to understand, can be patient and persistent.

Experiences on the suicide hotline crept into some of my writing, thinking and activities, but I never wanted, nor did I intend, to become “the guy who talks about suicide.” It felt too somber and terrifying. How could talking about suicide, especially teen suicide, bring anything other than grief and sadness?

Then, last summer, a local bank invited me to speak to their more senior account holders. They were interested in several essays from my blog; especially one entitled “A Time I Will Not See.” In it, I wrote how each of us will gain some measure of immortality through the messages our lives leave imprinted on youth. They will carry some of what they witness in us into a future we will not see. In my remarks at the bank, I backed gingerly into the topic of teen depression and suicide.

At the end of those remarks, one 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?” When I explained he was not alone, teens often hide their deep sadness, it seemed to alleviate his overwhelming guilt is some small way. When I asked if I could give him a hug, tears returned and we shared a mutual embrace.

I began to speak to more senior communities, but instead of treading softly, I started by revealing that 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 25, suicide is often the second leading cause of death. It surprises nearly everyone. I explain the multiple trends and issues that make a young life difficult, and the myriad reasons young people remain cloaked in silence.

In ancestral times, children learned to navigate day-to-day life from their parents, and learned wisdom from their grandparents. Today, we 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.”

When I speak, my plea to elders—our culture’s wisdom keepers—is that they gently and generously reassert their influence into the lives 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. Let them know that wisdom flows from suffering, and that in its aftermath, life can be, once again, joyful and life-affirming.” When one gentleman admitted that he, too, contemplated suicide as a youth, I asked if he shared that with his grandchildren. What a gift for the young people in his life to learn that grandpa suffered, and still lived a long and valued life.

After a recent visit to a senior community, a staff member sent an email in which she said, “The residents can’t stop talking about you. You left them with so much joy.”

So I come face-to-face with vocation. I am “the guy who talks about suicide” because the devastating consequences are a powerful wakeup call. I am being called to use my experience to save lives, especially the lives of those who are inexperienced in the pain, heartbreak and challenges of being human. I talk about teen depression and suicide and implore elders to help in the battle to slow the onslaught. When I do, a flame of hope arises with the thought that, maybe, just maybe, there is a vital role for them yet to play. And since hopelessness is rampant in the senior community, and suicide an all-too-frequent visitor, we just might save a few of their lives as well.

Jan 122016
 

Try to get over the narrow idea that surrender is abject defeat. Surrender, in spirituality, is total acceptance.
                                               From the Bhagavad Gita, as translated by Jack Hawley

When he finished playing, we embraced and I told him how he and his music have taught me a great deal about life.

Jeff McLean has filled our house with music many times in the ten years since he and my daughter became friends. Typically, night has overtaken us as he sits gently on the piano bench. He asks if it’s okay to turn down the lights; he prefers to play in near darkness. Within moments, he, the instrument and the music become one. I often wonder if he places his fingers on the keyboard, or if the keys reach upward to find him. In those moments, it seems music, piano, and musician relinquish individual identities and surrender to what is being called from them collectively. Jeff’s hands and fingers move effortlessly, called into position by the music and the instrument that will declare it to the world. The experience often brings tears to my eyes.

I have a sense that if Jeff tried to rein in the music and piano, forcing them to do his bidding—failing to accept the latent invitation into the communal creation—the room would become infused with notes borne of conflict and control, rather than music that emanates from generosity, love and relationship.

We live in a world that would have me believe, with enough effort—more force and control—I can fill the future with music of my own making. I can rein in the world and make it do my bidding. Should I fail to align the world with my vision, it’s solely due to a lack of effort and diligence. Jeff, the music, and the piano invite me to see the world in a new way: divine my path through surrender rather than diligence. In this world, I relinquish my individuality, accept the invitation to be found, and give of myself without reservation. When I find the courage required by surrender, the future arises from generosity, love and relationship…and is infinitely more beautiful than anything I could even imagine on my own.

The world of surrender, for me, is a brave new world…a truly foreign, oft frightening, land. But in a book I read recently, the author suggested, in those moments when life offers comfort or fear, we should choose fear. Comfort confirms that which we already know. Fear offers the possibility of learning and wisdom. My real life exists in that brave new world, so here’s to surrender, fear and courage.

Thank you Jeff for this exquisite lesson.

Feb 102014
 

Note: The following will appear in the March/April edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. It serves as my transition from Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce to…well, that remains uncertain.

     Years ago, Ram Das wrote a book entitled Still Here. In spite of having left the Chamber of Commerce, I am still here in Neighbors of Batavia magazine. Publishers Tim and Kate Sullivan have graciously asked me to continue. Showing up in this place, authentically and emotionally, has become an integral part of my life, and I am profoundly grateful for this sanctuary. This work serves as a bridge on my path from the past to an uncertain and indistinct future. To anyone who has expressed appreciation for these words, thank you as well. Your affirmations help me discern my path.
     My decision to leave the Chamber arrived unexpectedly late last year, but the clarity with which I reached that crossroad was undeniable. I simply could no longer remain the community’s chief spokesperson for business. In leaving, one of the first questions I face is, “So, what’s next?” The fact that I don’t know surprises many. Why leave a position, without an alternate landing pad on my flight plan? I’m not sure.
     From the start, I was the most unlikely of Chamber executives. Truth be known, I don’t care about the measures of success typically saddled upon such a position. Did we, in 10 years, brighten the economic environment? Did we sell more…make more money? Are there more businesses in Batavia…fewer empty store fronts? These would be measures of success for the traditional economic development professional, but in ten years, I never knew, nor did I care about, the answers to such inquiries. Centuries hence, it will not have mattered that we sold one more trinket, or put one more dollar into the bank.
    What will matter to our progeny hundreds of years in the future? I don’t know that either, but here are some thoughts…
     Are we better human beings today than we were yesterday? Do we care more…love more…discern more…respect more? Are we wiser and more insightful? Do we act with honesty, integrity and authenticity? Have we learned to ask questions that truly matter? Have we found our rightful place here in this place? I don’t know if we have made progress on these measures of our humanness, but of these I care deeply. In my ten years as head of the Chamber, I was always far more concerned about the business of people’s lives than I was about the lives of their businesses.
     The human species, as well, faces many crossroads. In my heart-of-hearts I believe we are staring over a precipice. As we move into the future it is not what we do…it is who we are that will determine if we fall precipitously from the heights, or take flight into a humane future in which we will come to discover prosperity that is stunning in its simplicity, yet beneficent beyond our imagination. It is to that quest to which I hope to turn my attention. What will be the manner and mode of my journey? Of that I am uncertain.

     In the journey of life, we face unexpected crossroads. They can be a time of fear and confusion…when prosperity seems elusive and uncertain. Nevertheless, we sometimes need to leap, build our wings on the way down and trust that prosperity is abundant if we are willing to recognize it.
     The subtitle of Ram Das’ book is Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. While I am thankful for my continued good health, I am aging and changing. More decades are behind me than ahead. But perhaps, if I pay attention and live with evermore honesty, integrity and authenticity, I can discover my vocation and an even more prosperous life on the path ahead than the one I have already traversed.
    Over the years, I ended many Chamber events by wishing those in attendance “Godspeed on your journey,” without knowing its origins and meaning. The word Godspeed comes from the Middle English phrase God spede…“May God prosper you.” For perhaps the very first time, with humility and gratitude, I am wishing myself Godspeed on my journey…and I invite you to do the same for yourself.
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.