June 21, 2016 § 2 Comments
Like most people, I’ve grown sadly accustomed to the horrors of the daily news, the sight of voracious rage that pits people against one another, and the sound of a most unruly world continually exploding. Each day, the images of mankind at its cruelest make me grow increasing weary. It’s a sobering spectacle that could make even the most religious person question God, and could afford most atheists a convincing argument for their beliefs.
It hurts to watch.
There are unimaginable cruelties perpetrated on children, on animals, and on those who have done nothing more than seek the same joy that each of us so badly desires. There are things that I wish I never knew existed, actions I wish I never knew were possible, and feelings I wish no human being would ever have to feel.
It hurts me to learn about them.
And so, I spent too many of my days drowning in the sea of things I never wished to know or to see. For much too long, they preoccupied my thoughts and overwhelmed me. Until the day finally came when I understood: these seas also harbored miracles; ones I had simply chosen to ignore. Until then, my focus had been only on the seas of misery, for I had developed a blindness for all of the wonderful things in life.
I had become blinded to the joy in people’s smiles, and had deemed the wagging tail of a dog irrelevant. I had been sightless as the sun rose, and the smallest of seeds grew into beautiful and fragrant flowers. And because it hurt so much to watch all the misery, I had begun to shut my emotions off like a spigot; to cauterize the nerve endings in my mind, and seal my soul off from the practice of living.
But blocking everything to avoid the horrors of life is no way to live. This is because to do this eliminates all things, even the good ones. Long ago, I once heard Leo Buscaglia say, “I’d rather feel pain than feel nothing.” I did not understand him at the time, but I do now. I understand that in avoiding pain, we often block out everything good in the process. Our fear of pain effectively dulls our experience of life, causing us to miss out on all the beautiful things that the news never talks about. In fearing the waves of everyday life, we often fail to see that in every moment of every day, somewhere in the word, the seas part. In every moment, much of what is most simple is most miraculous. In every moment, we’re sailing on oceans where wonders are not just the exception; they are the rule.
I now understand that painful, ugly things are the price of admission for this ability to see miracles, because the experience of awe comes with a price tag: the responsibility to see the world as it really is, not just with its abundant grace and beauty, but with all of its imperfections too.
Every now and then, I look out of my window after watching the nightly news and hearing the ugliness of the day. I see the Rockies in the distance, and the incredibly beautiful sunset. I think about the times that I’ve stood at the top of Pike’s Peak, with the wind blowing in my face and the breathtaking panorama all about me. I think about the snow-capped mountains I am blessed to look at regularly, and I remember standing on the beach at sunrise in the Outer Banks of North Carolina nearly 20 years ago. I recall the words I heard in the wind that came off of the ocean that day: “What has created this will no doubt take care of you.” Even with the news blaring in the background, on the days when I think of this, I can’t help but smile.
No, I will never fully accept the horrors of this world. Rest assured, I have no great affinity for the pain. But what I’ve finally come to realize is that I love the gain. That’s why I’m willing to pay the price of admission.
March 23, 2015 § 3 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.
November 15, 2014 § 5 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.
March 29, 2014 § 5 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.
September 16, 2012 § 6 Comments
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.
August 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
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.
May 28, 2012 § 1 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.