Forgotten Lives

March 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

I used to live a few blocks from a very old cemetery that I passed on my way to work. The headstones were worn down so much that the dates were hardly visible, and in many cases, the names were hard to discern. I often wondered who these people once were, as with the passage of time, nothing but a headstone now remained as a reminder that they ever had been here. We know nothing about them– who they loved, what they did, what their challenges were, what made them laugh or cry. We know nothing of those who cried at their graves and in whose hearts their memory remained. They, too, are long gone now.

This realization left me wondering about our legacy as human beings. While difficult to confront, we will one day all be in the same position. But even more critically, one day in the distant future, the country we live in will also cease to exist. When this happens, eventually even the lives of those we revere in our history books will be forgotten. One day, the planet on which we live will be gone. And on that day, there will be no trace that the human race ever was here. There will be no one left to remember any one of us. The old cemetery reminded me that our existence, as well as its memory, no matter how famous we may have been at one time, is always temporary. Yet we hear many eulogies describing the deceased as someone who will be remembered forever. While this is undeniably a very nice thought, a salve for the souls of the survivors, it is also undeniably false. The truth is that given enough time, a day will inevitably come when no one will remember any of us.

Not surprisingly, this was a very depressing thought at first! But as I considered it more carefully, it actually became the most life-affirming thought I had ever had. If nothing lasted, if even the most wealthy and famous people revered by our society are eventually forgotten with the loss of our history, then what is this life really about? There is no doubt in my mind that what it’s about is now. It’s about this very moment, and whatever miracle it brings. And no doubt, there are many of these miracles that happen to all of us in the course of our lives.

In the Japanese movie, After Life, the deceased are able to take only a single memory into eternity with them. One memory. I wondered what those people buried at the old cemetery would have chosen. I wondered what lovely story they would want to remember for all eternity, regardless of whether anyone else knew or cared about it. I wondered which of their precious moments they would want to relive again and again.

I thought about it myself for a bit–for me, the memory is the first time I saw my wife.

Whatever you decide, asking yourself which single memory you would choose is undoubtedly a great exercise. It takes you through the reels of your memory, and ultimately fills you with gratitude. In the process, you will note that the options are many, and the final choice is difficult. It’s a wonderful realization; a small walk through all of the priceless things in your life that money simply cannot buy. Best of all, it provides you with valuable practice at the essential skill of noticing everything that you have not been experiencing fully.

It’s a reminder to start paying attention— because you’ve already missed too much.

One Summer To Every Customer

November 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

When my brother-in-law’s father died a few years ago, I traveled with my wife from Philadelphia to the town where I spent the first 22 years of my life, Flushing, New York, to attend his wake. We arrived early, and the funeral home was still closed, so I decided to take my wife for a drive to see two houses I had lived in as a child.

I hadn’t seen the outside of those houses in 40 years, and was immediately struck by the memories that flooded me. The streets didn’t look as they did when I was young. As expected, the trees had grown much larger, but there had been other changes too. Many of the houses I recalled in those neighborhoods had completely disappeared, while others had aged almost beyond recognition. Both of the houses that I had lived in as a child appeared even uglier than I remembered. Flushing was never a lovely town, and even after all these years, the place had not failed to disappoint me.

Returning to my old neighborhood reminded me of an old Twilight Zone episode called Walking Distance, where a man travels back in time to the town where he grew up, and meets his 11 year old self. He is given the opportunity to see himself having a wonderful time, enjoying one of the many carefree summers of his youth. There, he meets his father, who reminds him that he’s already had his chance to be young. His father warns him that he cannot stay there, remaining lost in the past. Because he longs to be a carefree child again, so he asks his father why. “I guess,” his father tells him, “because we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer.”

My experience of returning to the past was eerily similar that day, except that my childhood was very different. When I was a child, I never had that kind of summer.

In my childhood, I never experienced carefree days at the park or weeks away at camp. I don’t remember playing with friends outside in the warm weather, or spending lazy days at the ballpark. I cannot remember a single pleasant summer; not with the simple, safe kind of summer days that every kid should have. It simply never happened. It’s not that it was a bad childhood; it was just not a good one.

Still, even as I recalled the overcast days of my youth, I realized something wonderful: I have been blessed with an endless number of those lovely summer days ever since leaving my hometown. I have known many warm, sunny days, and the freedom of doing what I truly wanted to do. I have known how it feels to smile and laugh, to feel safe, and to eat an ice cream cone in the sun. There have been so many wonderful friends to enjoy, so many baseball games to watch, and the kind of days that have made me feel lucky. I have come to know and appreciate the simplicity of doing nothing but look at the sunset. Summer days like these have surprised me on the coldest of February mornings, the most temperate days of April, and the hottest days of August. I have experienced them in different cities, in different countries, and with different people. My childhood summer days never came in three-month increments, but since leaving home, I’ve undoubtedly had more than my childhood share. And on that day in my old hometown, I realized that my life had somehow found its summer.

I cannot tell you why I have been so fortunate. Maybe the Universe chose to compensate me because I never got to have my carefree, youthful summer. Maybe because the world loves balance, the equation that is my life simply had to catch up. Maybe I’ve been rewarded for working so hard to change my life. Maybe it’s just been plain, dumb luck. I can only tell you that in going back home, I realized that it’s best never to think that the worst of today will be the framework of your tomorrow. It reminded me that it’s best never to give up hope.

And after revisiting my yesterdays, we attended the wake, tried to comfort my brother-in-law, and said our goodbyes. As we headed back toward the highway, I looked back, once again, at the streets I used to walk as a child. I saw new stores that I had never seen before, kids I had never met walking out of the high school, and houses that had not existed when I lived there all those years ago. The hometown of my memory did not exist anymore. New people lived there now, and they were having great summers. On the streets where I lived, children were playing stickball and having fun. It made me smile to see them living in a happy Flushing, not the city without summers that I knew in my childhood. I wished them well as I drove away.

As for me, I knew I would never come back again. I was going to places where another summer day awaited me.

Grateful Sadness

March 29, 2014 § 4 Comments

This past summer, I moved from my home in suburban Philadelphia to a new home and job in Denver, Colorado. The new job was an opportunity of a lifetime; a chance to work at a wonderful institution, to focus exclusively on work I love to do, and to live in a place that everyone seems to rave about. And so it was that I made the move, looking forward to the new opportunities that awaited me.

But about two weeks before leaving, all of this wondrous possibility became tempered by something quite different: the realization that I was leaving friends that I loved behind. When I moved to Pennsylvania in 2004, I didn’t know any of these people. One by one, they came into my life, and one by one, each became so pivotal to my life that I could not remember a time when I did not know them.

I was with them through laughter and fun, and to share a drink now and then to help smooth life’s occasional ruts or to celebrate its many joys. I was with some through their cancer diagnoses & treatments, and others through the loss of their parents. I was with some as they struggled with a child’s addiction, and others as they faced marital problems, divorce, mental health challenges, and alcoholism. And they were there for me, every single one of them, whenever I needed a friend.

One by one, I had to say goodbye to them. I watched my friends well up with emotion. I cried with them, and realized the true depth of our pain and loss. I tried to comfort myself in any way I could. I was reminded of Richard Bach’s line from Illusions: “Don’t be dismayed by good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.” I reminded myself that the Universe is a friendly place that would never allow bonds like ours to know the pain of permanent separation. The history that affection creates has certainly etched our connection into eternity. I know that we will continue to find each other, again and again.

But above all, it was a single thought that carried me—a singular understanding that allowed me to leave Philadelphia feeling not only sad, but heartened as well. I realized how incredibly lucky we all were to have been given this opportunity to feel the pain of our separation. I further realized how incredibly lucky we were to be blessed with relationships surrounded by such love that it now made our distance painful. I realized how wonderful this bittersweet pain really was, because it signaled an equally great and rare affection.

And with that thought, I sat and cried. Not because I was sad, but because I was grateful.

One Scene Each Day

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Artists have long understood the essential elements of life with seemingly greater ease than the rest of us. This is what gives them the ability to teach us so much about what brings us happiness. I have often watched a movie and thought, “yes, I get it now.” Whether it’s the meaning of commitment depicted in The Notebook, the inexplicable selflessness depicted in the final scene of Casablanca, or the meaning found in helping others depicted in Schindler’s List, movies have always taught me something about what real happiness is about.

Perhaps none more so than the film Cinema Paradiso, which tells the story of a little boy who loves the movies, and his relationship with the projectionist of the local theater who becomes a father figure to him. The theater is located in a small, conservative Sicilian town, where the church has mandated that the projectionist cut all of the love scenes the movies that are shown there. Many years pass, and the little boy becomes an adult, who moves to America and becomes a well-known film director. He achieves great financial success, yet he struggles with matters of the heart. He eventually receives news that his old friend, the projectionist, has died, and he returns to his village in Sicily to attend the funeral. He learns that the old man has left something for him: a single reel of film, with no title. In the final scene of the movie, we see the director sitting alone in a screening room to watch the reel that his friend has left him. What appears on the screen before him are all of those lost love scenes that had been cut from the movies all of those years ago, one after another. His friend has left him a beautiful collection of scenes filled with passion, love, kisses, and affection. We see the director crying with powerful emotion as he watches these scenes unfold, but we also see him smiling through his tears at this priceless gift of love.

Do you want to be truly happy? Don’t wait to watch the reel of love that’s been given to you. Watch it now, and every single day! Replay each and every joyful moment, relive each embrace, and remember every sign of affection. Do this while you are working, before you go to sleep, and when you wake up. Remember to feel gratitude for all of the people who played a role, and always remember to thank them.

Most importantly, remember to leave a lovely reel of film each day for others as well—a reel of love that no one can ever take away. They will forget their birthday presents. They will forget what was under the Christmas tree. But the reel of love is never forgotten. The memories are replayed in ones mind and they become a warm blanket on a cold night. Each day, resolve to leave behind a wonderful scene for someone– a loving moment for them to replay.

When you live this way, you will experience joy you have never known.

You Count

August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

In a culture obsessed with fame, it seems that everyone wants to be a “someone.” Whether the notoriety is achieved through significant accomplishments, or simply through a strong public relations machine, the primary goal is recognition. It is often irrelevant whether an individual is famous for their good deeds and contribution to humanity, like Mother Theresa, or is simply famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton. People simply want to be known in order to feel that they count in this world.

What they fail to understand, however, is that they already do count—this is a given. Everyone counts, and so do you. Whatever you may do, or whatever you may fail to do, there is an essence within you that is completely distinct, like no one else’s. You are unique and special in ways that neither you nor most other people can even fathom; you are just unaware of it. That’s the good news.

But we all need to recognize that counting in this world comes with important responsibilities. While this may be something that many of us prefer not to hear or acknowledge, it is a fundamental truth that Mother Theresa clearly understood, embodied, and chose to live by. She recognized that whatever we do or fail to do invariably impacts others, and that we each have a purpose to fulfill. This means that because you count, you have a very specific job to do, and that doing that job will invariably bring you joy.

It is also important for each of us to understand that our particular job need not be near the level of Mother Theresa’s. So often, people overstate their responsibilities. To save the world, for example, is not a responsibility—it’s an unrealistic expectation. Bring about world peace? That is likely beyond your job description. Your job can be accomplished simply by doing little things. If you have the gift of humor, help someone to laugh. If you have the gift of empathy, listen to someone. If you have the gift of compassion, work with someone who needs help. Small things, when accomplished regularly, aggregate into big results that impact many people. Small things, when done out of the goodness of ones heart, can transform others’ souls. Small things, when done by everyone, can change the world.

Remember that you count. Smile at someone today. Say something soothing to one who needs it. Help someone move a piece of furniture. Send someone a heartfelt email to tell her how she has helped you.

Remind people that they count, and watch the world begin to change.

Divine Questions

May 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have often heard people say that they wish they could ask God a question—it’s usually something about the meaning of life or why bad things happen to good people. More often, it involves an angry diatribe about how messed up the world is, and how God owes us an explanation for this mess. As for me, there has never been a day when I wanted to ask God anything. This has nothing to do with a lack of questions on my part, or with a belief that I have all the answers. I simply know my limitations, and realize that I am just not smart enough to understand divine answers.

Instead of asking questions, I have long wondered what it is that God would ask me. There have been times when I thought he might be angry and ask, “Are you stupid?” More often, however, I believed he would be much kinder: “Hey, Bob—can you explain some of those decisions you’ve made?”

Lately, I imagine different questions, such as: “How do you think you might have done that better?” I even imagine that God could ask me to role play: “Can you tell me what she felt when you did that?” I feel certain that he would be reassuring: “That’s okay. You have learned from this mistake, and you will do better next time.” Regardless of the particular issues addressed, the questions are consistent in that they are always kind and loving, and they always serve a higher purpose.

So, I’ve learned to use God’s questions as a diagnostic tool that can help me to do better, by learning to ask these questions of myself before they are asked of me. This strategy helps me escape the trap of seeing my errors as catastrophic, and of allowing my limitations to define me. I have discovered that my errors carry the keys to my salvation; with each wrong turn, the Universe guides me through the next door and provides another chance. I now view my errors as the keys that can free me from the prison of my own ignorance, rather than the locks that shackle me to my lowest moments.

I have no illusions that my questions will miraculously lead to a carefully crafted and completely correct answer every time. But there is also something very awe-inspiring in the attempt. There is something courageous in the simple effort to face your lowest moments. There is something to be gained with each misstep that is ultimately understood. Rather than simply seeing a flawed world and questioning the Universe, there is something very empowering about taking personal responsibility without falling back on our habit of blaming God.

And so, with the help of kind and loving questions, I can begin to do a bit better with each new day. With kind and loving questions, I can begin to understand the best of who I am. I can begin to measure my life by improvements, rather than by mistakes. I might even begin to understand the best of who I am. And if I ask myself enough of these questions, I won’t have time to question the divine plan—only my place in it.

Miracle of the Day

March 4, 2012 § 5 Comments

There are days when I get up in the morning, and I’m not quite sure why I’m around. Don’t get me wrong; my life is fine. I have my issues like everyone else, but I wouldn’t trade my life for someone else’s. Still, I sometimes wonder exactly what it is that I am really here for. After all, I’m just a small guy in a big world filled with problems; a small guy who sometimes doesn’t seem to possess the mental muster to see an opportunity, or the physical strength to carry on through a day. I am not sure if I’ll ever have the spunk or the smarts to figure out why I am here.

And yet, what I’ve come to understand is that figuring it out on my own is actually unnecessary. This is because each and every day, I know I am going to encounter a miracle. You read it correctly: a miracle. Each day, this mysterious universe that we live in is going to hand me the miracle of the day— and when it does, that miracle will tell me why I’m here.

Every day, there is something that crosses my path, explaining my assigned job in great detail. This description is much like the opening scenes in Mission Impossible: “Your mission, Bob, should you decide to accept it, is to…” So begins a miracle I am being asked to participate in. Each day the miracle is different; it can be small or large. Help this person. Sit with that person. Say something meaningful to that person. Each day, it’s a matter of dealing with tears or smiles, victory or loss, intelligence or stupidity. I never get to choose. Those who make the recordings decide; I am just a servant.

You may ask why I would spend any of my time doing this for people. I do it because it’s my job. I do it because they need me. I do it because I can remember what it felt like when I needed someone, and that someone showed up. I know the feeling of being pulled out of a dark well by a stranger and taking a fresh look at the sun. I know what it feels like when people follow their instructions to help me, even when they have nothing to gain. I can also remember what it felt like when I needed someone who did not show up. I never want to be the person who the missed the appointment and undid the miracle that was meant for that day.

So, why are you around? I realize that the answer is complicated, but believe that one significant reason is to listen for your tapes to arrive, and then follow your orders. It’s to do something for someone else, even if your mission of the day is simply to plant a seed. It’s to understand that while it’s impossible to truly change another person, the impossible is not your mission. It is simply doing what you’ve been asked to do today. Let go. Listen to your heart, and to the tapes the Universe has handed to you.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to follow the orders, and in so doing, experience the miracle of the day.

Tag, you’re it.

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