Grateful Sadness

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.

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Walking Out of Hell

December 31, 2011 § 9 Comments

Once upon a time in a miraculous Universe where all things are possible, amidst the fires of hell where all is unholy, the devil had a son who had nothing in common with his father. Good to the core, virtuous and loving, the young man was a saint by the definition of anyone on heaven or earth.

And so it was that a saintly creature was born into the infernal fires of hell, where demons and evil souls resided, and was forced to live among those whose essence was entirely different from his own.

Each day, upon arising, the devil’s son would find himself mocked by all those about him. Rejected by his father, his actions derided and criticized by those who inhabited hell, he found himself lost amidst a sea of hatred, anger, and evil. Vowing never to capitulate to what others in hell deemed acceptable, he lived a life of constant sorrow, of inadequacy, and pain.

With no friends and a father who despised him, he awoke one day and decided that he would walk out of hell. His father and all the inhabitants of hell were glad to be rid of him, mocked him as he left, throwing balls of fire, and poured the foulest substances they could find on him.

Walking onto planet earth and finding himself hungry, burned, and smelling foul, he ran into a man who helped him clean up and took him to a nearby hospital. There, he met caring people who tended to him and made him comfortable. There, for the first time in his life, he ran into love and understood that good things and people were possible.  There, he understood there was goodness in the Universe and found that he was loved and could love others. And when he was well, he left the hospital and spent his time on earth happy among people who understood and gave love.

What does this fable of the devil’s son tell us?

It tells us that you can find goodness—somewhere. Where all is wrong, in your families, at your workplace, in your neighborhoods, on the often callous streets, it reminds us of that goodness. If you are living in hell, it’s time to get out and be around people who are loving and caring. Risk all by leaving your hell and you will find the love you deserve.

It tells us that it’s not where you come from, but who you are that defines you. It doesn’t matter who your parents were. It doesn’t matter what horrors were perpetrated on you. It doesn’t matter how you were betrayed and what you were told; you can let your inner light shine. Oscar Schindler started as a Nazi himself, yet saved many in the midst of a mass extermination campaign that was well-funded and filled with hate. Goodness does not have a genetic strain, nor is it based on a history. Risk all by walking away from whatever negatively defines you—but that you know simply does not fit who you are.

It tells us that it is important to be vigilant, to begin to understand ourselves apart from our surroundings. The bad places where we may live and work should not define us. The “bad people” we know and meet should not characterize us. Hell should not and cannot make you believe that acting divinely is bad. You have to agree. You have to capitulate. You have to give in. Risk all by refusing to agree.

It tells us that for each of us who seek good and act out of love, there is a place. There are kind and caring people. And it reminds us to keep looking for that place and those people. On a planet called earth, the devil’s good son found in the arms of our neighbors the good he had been yearning for. So it must be that we who are not born in hell must hold on to our goodness as well. We must continue to act out of love, even as we see and experience hate. We must continue to look for the love that we deserve and can share with others. Risk all by believing in the power of love.

Never give up. Never give in. What is good is irrepressible.  What is good is never alone.

Risk all—except love.

Supermarket Sweep Life

December 23, 2011 § 15 Comments

When I was kid, there was a strange game show on television called Supermarket Sweep. Part of the show was a live-action, timed competitive race through an empty supermarket. Contestants would hurl the most expensive goods they could find into a shopping cart in a given time period. The total value of what was in the cart determined which team won. It did not matter what was in the cart and whether the goods were useful or tasty—what mattered is that you hoarded more expensive goods than others did.

I have found this silly game show is a good metaphor for our modern American life. We spend so much time buying and gathering things that are often entirely unnecessary, and sometimes meaningless. Got a working cell phone—no problem, buy another one just because it is the newest thing. After all, your friends will have one and you need to compare favorably. So you spend money you often do not have, discard the other phone and leave it for the dump, and then move onto the next thing to buy. The television tells you all you need to know—buy, buy buy, and have more than the Jones’ next door. It hardly matters whether you need (or even like) that McMansion or fancy car. You buy it to keep up, only to find that once you have it, you are no happier. Sadly, once you get it, you are soon onto thinking about its replacement—something bigger, fancier, and more expensive. You struggle to get it before the Jones’ do.

It is no surprise we aren’t happy. We are too busy filling the metaphorical shopping cart to pay much attention to anything else. We fail at happiness because we are not focusing on doing those things that bring happiness. There is no time left to do important things because we are so busy running around accumulating and acting competitively with others.

What are the consequences of a Supermarket Sweep life? I’m left to wonder what this way of living has done to our children, to whom we leave a vacuous legacy of mp3 players, video games, and cell phones.

I’m left to ask what this has done to our neighborhoods, where once family helped family, but we are now all to busy to help one another.

I’m left to ponder if in the end, all we are aiming for is a life of shopping carts replete with meaningless things and empty relationships. A life in which we get a winning financial score compared to our fellow citizens, but a losing life score. I’m asking myself if what we are left with are nice houses and beautiful cars that unhappy and unfulfilled people can inhabit.

I’m left to question whether we all see that the end point for all of us is the check-out line, where life’s clock always ticks to a grinding halt, and contestants leave behind items for an estate sale.

I’m left to wonder if there is a better way.

I think there is.  I am not suggesting we all live in mud huts or ride in foot-pedaled cars like Fred Flintstone. I am not suggesting we stop eating good food or go on vacation. I am not suggesting we dress in rags. What I am suggesting is that the best life can offer will not be found in the things we meaninglessly own, but in a more balanced approach to life. We can find that way by asking better questions about what we want and why we want it, before mindlessly dropping goods into our shopping carts.

1. Do I really need this? So often the answer is “no,” so the spent cash is money down the drain. Even more often, quiet reflection leads you to conclude that what you were considering as a purchase was baited on a hook by clever advertisers. Most of us listen to ads like they were the advice given by knowledgeable friends with our best interests at heart.  Instead, what we are getting are the artificial hunger pangs for things planted in our mind.

2. Will it make me happy? So often the answer is “yes” because we are not thinking about the difference between long-term and short-term happiness.  I loved new sport cars. They made me happy for about a week, and then I would forget all about them, though I would be paying for them for 5 years. In a culture that has us conditioned toward purchased, short-term happiness, learning this is not easy. So, be gentle on yourself and start slow, but mindfully. If you have reason to believe that something will make you happy—then perhaps you should get that one thing you want. But then carefully monitor whether it makes you happy. You will learn by trial and error that you were not correct in your assumption, and soon, you will begin to choose differently.

3. What am I hiding from?  We are being sold goods that are designed to cover us from reality. The new miraculous makeup, for example, may be hiding the lines on your face, but likely it is hiding something deeper that the make-up cannot fix. It’s hiding the fear of rejection, the inevitability of death, and the desire to be perfect. What is tragically true is that it will fix none of these. You are trying to purchase what cannot be bought.

4. Why do I care what the Jones’ have?  The answer is frighteningly simple: you were told to care. You were told to compete with them. You were told that if you had one less item, you were less of a human being, less worthy, and ultimately, less lovable. None of it is true. Accepting that reality will not change the Jones’ competitive mindset, but it will change how you behave. They can compete with someone else. Instead, as William Faulkner noted, your goal is to “Try to be better than yourself.”

5. How can I allocate my resources to help someone else? Once a week, stop focusing on yourself and look outside yourself to help another. The answer is not necessarily to donate more money, but to become a real part of people’s lives. It is not always about feeding the hungry, though this is a good thing to do. So often, we ignore the well-fed souls ripped apart by the hunger for relationships and meaning. Ask yourself if there is a way to spend some of your time (and perhaps some money) for others. Immerse yourself in them Help them. Be there for them. You soon will learn a kind of joy that no fancy car or expensive watch can ever bring.

And there are no doubt other questions. Feel free to suggest them!

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