‘The Least of These’

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The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

When I was in elementary school, our custodians were Jerome, John, and Emma. They were the ones who cleaned up when somebody dropped a jar of tempera paint or some kid threw up. I always noticed how the teachers treated them with such respect and deference, and this made an impression on me. I guess this is obvious, since I still remember their names and haven’t seen them since 1970. How we treat others becomes an example for children. In this case, the “others” were African-American janitors in a segregated school in the 1960s. And yet they were treated with respect by the teachers and this spoke volumes to me.

In the same way, how we treat children says much. My mother was frequently in and out of our state psychiatric hospital. I would go visit her and, strange as it may sound, have warm memories of the people I encountered in those visits. For example, there was a man named Kato who treated my mother well and entertained me when I was there with his funny stories and animated demeanor. He made amazing crafts; once he somehow created a wallet for me woven out of cigarette packs.

I don’t think I will ever shake the sense that humble people have kind hearts. This is borne out every day in my encounters with both strangers and friends.

I frequently remark that I would rather have dinner with my friends than with any celebrity I can name. (Okay, I would like to have dinner with Natasha Bedingfield, but I would want my friends to come too.) I am truly dumbfounded at the adulation we give to celebrities in our culture. I actually think that many of the celebrities themselves have this same reaction.

I remember hearing a story about a large cathedral which was built with a small door. When asked the reason for this design, the explanation was that everyone, no matter how large or small, would need to bow before entering. In that way, they would be reminded of the necessity of humility. Jesus Christ said much about the status of the rich and poor: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

What, then, would be the implications of this line of thought?

  1. We want to be careful about evaluating people based on appearances. Leo Tolstoy said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” The flip side of this, however, is that as we come to know and love people, they become beautiful in our eyes.
  2. We must always be more concerned about the state of our spirit than our bank account. Money can come and go, material things can be bought and sold, but we will look at ourselves in the mirror each day and know whether we are living according to our core beliefs.
  3. Gratitude is essential. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others,” said Cicero. We can protect ourselves from taking good things for granted by cultivating a grateful heart.

Once there was a housekeeper who worked in my building. I would see her early in the morning and, in her limited English and my limited Spanish, we would talk about her children and her aspirations. One morning, she lightly tapped on my door and presented me with some delicious Mexican hot chocolate. Though I had many more material resources than her, she was the one giving me a gift.

Our society is enthralled greatly by celebrity and political power. It is my belief that every single life is of equal value. When I drive into my old hometown of Greensboro (N.C.) and I pass by the housing projects, I think about all the stories there. I think about the hopes which are fully alive, as well as those which are growing dim. And at my favorite restaurant in the city, as we are waited on exclusively by Latino women, I think about how I’m sure they have the same concerns for themselves and their families as I do.

We all have the freedom to choose how we will live, and it’s our choices this day and the attitudes of our hearts, not the circumstances of our birth nor the size of our bank accounts, that determine the tenor of our lives.

The Quality of Passion

Passion butterfly — Gulf fritillary via Creative Commons

Last weekend, my wife and I were traveling to a race about 1.5 hours from home. As is often the case, I was playing DJ, selecting song after song, somewhat in a stream of consciousness. Because I am passionate about music and the lyrics to any song I like are important to me, I found myself getting goose bumps over and over. I told my wife about this, she looked over and said, “Wow, you really do have goose bumps!” This is what it’s like to be a passionate person.

I’ve had a confusing and complicated relationship with passion.

It has been a source of fear, something poised to spin out of control, to pull me off the straight line that has been my salvation.

It has been my superpower, giving me the extra dose of adrenaline to make me unstoppable.

It has been my shame, causing me to be emotive while others looked back at me, expressionless.

I see others like me, to whom I can relate, who have a passion for life in general, and these people feel like my tribe. I see others, who are stoic in their demeanor, and I sometimes feel strange and out-of-control around them.

Sometimes we look to the wisdom of the ages to inform our views. Here, the wisdom is in conflict.

For example, Steve Jobs said, ”You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” That’s one point of view.

John Wooden, on the other hand, took much the oppositive viewpoint: “I never yelled at my players much. That would have been artificial stimulation, which doesn’t last very long. I think it’s like love and passion. Passion won’t last as long as love. When you are dependent on passion, you need more and more of it to make it work. It’s the same with yelling.

Clearly, the semantics of passion versus purpose versus emotion versus intensity can all get in the way. I won’t contribute to the problem by creating my own distinctive definitions for these terms. I will simply say that things taken to the extreme can be detrimental. For example, if you are cold-stoned purposeful without any empathy for others, you will not likely be entirely successful. If you are driven by passion but don’t bother learning to execute your plan (or even make a plan), your passion might not lead to anything.

In fact, one of the challenges when discussing passion is the tendency to see others as being either lacking in it or having too much of it. This reminds me of the old George Carlin line about how anyone driving faster than us on the highway is a maniac and anyone driving slower is an idiot.

So I say let the outcome be the measure. If someone does something significant, if she goes beyond what merely going through the motions might accomplish, perhaps that is passion revealing itself.

My running group recently had an Ultimate Runner event in which we were expected to run at different distances with a full-out effort. I saw much passion on display as some people truly did give everything they had.

Because there is a tendency to be judgmental when measuring others’ passion, I’d prefer to let them be their own judge. And because I am full of passion (as well as intensity and emotion and feelings), I am aware of the strength and weakness of passion. How someone exhibits their passion might be different from you or me, but that doesn’t mean their passion is any less meaningful or useful.

Ultimately, I think Benjamin Franklin had it right: “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” Your passion, whatever it might be, can be combined with reason and knowledge and experience to do something special.

What are your goals?

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On most mornings, I repeat to myself the words of John Wooden: “Make each day your masterpiece.” Some days seem closer to bringing this about than others, but I don’t know that it will be ever be possible to live every minute to my highest standards, simply because being human means we won’t be perfect.

On some level, we probably all make compromises with ourselves. If perfection is the only acceptable outcome, we will be disappointed or driven crazy or both.

On the other hand, we will not even know how close we come to our goals unless those goals are formed. I am goal-oriented, perhaps even too much so, but I am careful about dictating to others how they should live. In fact, for parts of our lives, it’s essential that we be rather than do. Still, there is great value in actually articulating what we want to do with our lives:

1. Having goals helps us prioritize our time. If we have multiple competing activities we want to do, our goals can help us decide what we should do at this minute.

2. Our goals shine a light when we are in the dark. Sometimes we are down, and our goals remind us why we started in the first place.

3. Finally, our goals affirm that we are worthy human beings. When we form goals, we are essentially stating that we are capable of achieving good and important things.

I refrain from preaching too much about goals to others, even though I would like for everyone to know what they are aiming toward. Sometimes not having formed your goals is a sign that you are still working things out in your life, and I don’t want friends to feel like I am rushing that process for them.

For those who are thinking about goals, here are some tips to create or re-visit your goals:

1. Consider your life holistically. You may have work or relationship goals. I would encourage you to think even more broadly. I put my goals into the four areas of my life — spiritual, physical, intellectual, and social.

2. In many parts of your life like your employment, you are encouraged to have S.M.A.R.T. goals — Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon or Attainable, Realistic/Reasonable, and Time-based. If you want to do this with your life goals, it will likely serve you well. Know, however, that these are for you. It’s important that you know when and if you are achieving your goals, but they do not necessarily have to conform to the format of those from the workplace.

3. Don’t think too small. I recently went back and looked at some goals from a few years ago. I was amazed and how small they seemed. This is your life — don’t sell yourself short.

4. The goal is an end, but getting there is a journey, and in the end, the journey is life. For example, say you have a goal to get another degree. When the degree is done, your life will not end. It is far more important what happens on the way to the degree than the moment when you receive a diploma. “Future you” might need the degree, but the world needs your knowledge which the degree represents.

If you are aiming at nothing, don’t be surprised at what you hit. You have one precious life, one chance to spend your days on earth. You should put at least as much planning into your life as you do your vacation. Your goals can be part of that plan.

How big do you want your life to be?

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“You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration.” James Allen

When I was small, my friends and I would lie on recliners in the back yard on Friday nights and gaze at the stars. Our futures were entirely in front of us and we would speak as if the world was our oyster. And it was.

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An idea is a powerful thing, perhaps more powerful than any force on Earth. What I didn’t know then was how strong is the link between our ideas and the lives we manifest. Though I’m a spiritual person, I don’t mean this in the spiritual sense. What I mean is that we pretty much have the autonomy to decide what kind of life we’ll lead.

With each passing year, I can see this more and more clearly. If you decide that the circumference of your life will be to go to work, come home and watch television, and go to bed, that is what you’ll do. If you decide that you want to make an impact on others, perhaps as a teacher or health professional or coach, that is what you’ll do. If making a lot of money tops your list, you have a good chance of doing so.

Depending on your paradigm of life, this concept might either come to you as banal or revolutionary. For some, for those who were raised to believe they actually charted their own course, they know that there is cause and effect. While you might not be able directly to bring about everything you want, you have much say. If you believe that life is something that happens to you rather than for you, then you may find it difficult to internalize the degree to which you are calling the shots in your life.

I sometimes wonder about those people in the neighborhood of my youth, the ones whose backyards we inhabited on those Friday nights. Did they have dreams? Did they pursue them? Were they living their dreams? Did they look up at the same stars and imagine where they might end up?

And what about you? How big is your life? How big do you want it to be? I suggest you think bigger than you might offhand. And by “bigger”, I trust you know I’m not talking about material things. I hope you’ll allow yourself to consider how much meaning you can wring out. How much impact you can have on others. How much love you can share.

On the next clear night, look up at the stars. Consider how big is the sky. Now double the size of the life you’ve decided upon. There’s room for you.

A Meaningful Life, part 1: Your Occupation

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Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life? (Mary Oliver)

I used to work with a fellow who, like me, arrived early in the morning. When I’d see him, I’d ask how he was and most mornings he would respond by saying, entirely sarcastically, “Living the dream.” I never told him how it made me sad that this was never said with any hint of authenticity.

On a recent day, I was at the local CVS drug store. There was a woman who came to ring up my order. She looked a little sad. She was heavy and walked with a bit of a limp. Her teeth weren’t straight and she did not have a perfect complexion. I made up my mind that, in our brief interaction, I would be as friendly and bright with her as I could. I could tell that my efforts had some effect as she did smile and speak a bit.

I’ve thought about this woman in the past several days. I wondered if she has plans and dreams for the future. I hope she does.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Most (people) lead lives of quiet desperation.” Though I so wish this weren’t true, there is probably a good deal of accuracy in this statement.

I want to contrast the woman I mentioned above with my friend Sarah. I once asked Sarah how she would score her job satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10. After just a few seconds of deliberation, she said with confidence, “10!”. This made me so happy, for in a world of people who live for the weekend (and can’t wait for retirement), it was refreshing to see someone who loved her job.

I think many people think, “Well, I like this occupation some and I can get a job doing it, so that will be my career choice.” While this may indeed enable you to earn a living, is it really the way to live your life?

Not long ago, I sent Sarah this image and told her how happy it made me that it was entirely applicable to who she was. (This post is mostly about our chosen occupations. In an upcoming one, I’ll address the other parts of our lives.)

When I approached my career as a young man, I did not have this Venn diagram, nor would I have let myself believe that such an intersection of talent, altruism, and emotional reward would have even been possible. I had one goal — finding a professional job that would pay me and make me feel secure. Little did I know how flawed was that thinking.

The point I want to emphasize here, mostly applicable to young people but also for all of us, is that “Doing something you’re good at” lays the groundwork.

Returning to my friend Sarah, she is a physician, and I know for a fact that she worked very hard in school, medical school, internship, and residency, and refined her trade by working in an underserved, low-income community after her formal training. She derives great joy in helping patients, and especially in delivering babies (and let’s face it, could there be a more rewarding way to make money than by helping to bring new human beings into the world?). This is only possible, however, because of the work she did to be in this position.

There is an often-cited, landmark study which showed the benefits of delayed gratification. Sarah’s work is an example of this in action. Let me sum up by adding my own experience.

I, too, would put my job satisfaction somewhere near a 10. I work in the computer industry and have made a good living for the past 32 years in information technology. For someone who much more enjoys people than machines, this isn’t a likely career choice, but it has served me well, and I hope I’ve contributed to others. My current position, which I love, is to mentor student interns who provide technical support for our customers.

This was made possible because of many late nights by myself in data centers, early mornings coding for projects, and weekend phone calls for server crises. None of this was my ultimate goal — it was a step to get there. Because I have technical skills, I can do what I love.

I’m not sure we ever completely arrive. If we don’t leave, however, we will remain far from the shores of our calling.

Things I Will Not Take for Granted

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

The beauty of a sunrise or sunset

A close-knit family

Hours of time spent with friends

A job I love

Being a father

Legs that carry me places

Things that make me laugh

The miracle and joy of new life

A God so big that I’m still learning how big

A Divine Intervention

Though I’ve had a deep and abiding belief in God since childhood, I’ve never really understood why He chooses to intervene in humanity sometimes and not in others. I’ve only had what I would say is one supernatural experience of God. This is the story of that event.

Growing up with two parents who were substance abusers, I was exposed to many harrowing situations. So many times I was alone when I shouldn’t have been, or seen what I shouldn’t have seen, or subjected to what I shouldn’t have experienced. When you’re a child, you interpret these things in all kinds of ways. Sometimes I appreciated the ability to stay out as late as I wanted or eat whatever I wanted. Beneath that was an insecurity: Who will help me if I need it?

I could recite many of these stories but for this post, I will focus on one in particular. My father drank more and more and I got older. He was a different person when sober than when he was intoxicated. Over time, the periods I would see him sober became less frequent.

One night when I was perhaps eight or nine years old, he was angry at the police for some reason. He came home and unleashed a flurry of threats and profanity to the Greensboro Police Department on the phone. Eventually, I went to bed and managed to get to sleep.

I was awakened to a loud knocking on the door. I kept hoping my father would answer it, but when that didn’t happen, I overcame my fear and went to respond. When I opened the door, a bright flashlight shone in my face, and there were three or four officers. They asked for my father, and I told them he wasn’t there; I thought he was gone, since he hadn’t answered the door. They insisted he was, came in, and indeed he was in his bedroom.

I was shuffled off to some neighbors who were willing to look after me while he took a trip to the jail. (It’s funny how you remember little things. I was trying to sleep on their sofa when their refrigerator came on and startled me!)

This is one of many such episodes. I am beyond thankful that I escaped largely unscathed, all things considered, from such situations.

Perhaps the biggest remnant from my youth was a sense of shame. When your parents do things that humiliate you, you carry a lot of shame by proxy. I felt this in my high school and college years. It seemed to be worst in the mornings — not the way you want to start your day.

And then, when I was a college junior, I was walking in an area, ironically called The Pit, when from out of nowhere, I felt a flush run through me in my mind, body, and soul. My legs felt weak. I knew at that minute it wasn’t a normal occurrence, and I also knew at the time I would never feel irrational shame again (and I never have). I suppose if one is only going to have one supernatural experience in life, that wasn’t a bad time or purpose.

I saw a friend a short time later and told her what happened. With no real reason to know, I was sure that I had been healed of this particular problem.

I try not to extrapolate too much from this, nor do I discuss it often. Still, perhaps there is something so insidious about shame that this is the only way I could have been freed from it. I enjoy the benefits of this extraordinary gift every day.

Things You Should Not Put Off Indefinitely

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Among the reasons life can be tricky is that we hear mixed messages. Many of these sound good and make sense. A friend and I were discussing the other day about delayed gratification versus seizing the moment.

“Haste makes waste,” but “Stop waiting for things to happen and go out and make them happen”. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” But Robert Herrick tells us to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Leo Tolstoy said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” and Mark Twain said, “Progressive improvement beats delayed perfection.”

What are we to do? My conclusion is that some things can wait and some can’t. Here are some actions you should not put off:

  1. Texting your friend to say how much difference she or he makes in your life.
  2. Noticing the flecks of color in your friend’s eyes.
  3. Learning at least one dance to go with a favorite song.
  4. Writing a note to someone who has inspired you.
  5. Asking your best friend for whom is she or he named.
  6. Chipping away at your Bucket List.
  7. Taking in a sunrise.
  8. Using the good china.
  9. Thanking a teacher.
  10. Saying “I love you” to those who mean the most in your life.
  11. Running or walking in the rain.
  12. Taking on a physical challenge like running a marathon.
  13. Planting something beautiful.
  14. Encouraging a young person who needs it.
  15. Taking in the wonder of a new baby.
  16. Going back to school, even if it’s just one course.
  17. Giving away money.
  18. Throwing a surprise party for someone’s birthday or for no reason.
  19. Paying for someone’s groceries.
  20. Making yourself vulnerable in the interest of intimacy.

In short, don’t put off things that will help you grow as a person. After a lifetime, you will be proud of who you’ve become.

This Is It

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Back in the mid-1900s, anyone attending a Chicago Cubs game would have been greeted by an Andy Frain usher. These gentlemen were usually tall, unfailingly neat and well-groomed, and were representative of their namesake.

I have a friend who grew up in the Chicago area. Once, he was at a Cubs game and struck up a conversation with an Andy Frain usher. After the usher made a quick, favorable assessment of my friend, he made him an offer. “Would you like to be an Andy Frain usher?” My friend, for reasons he didn’t understand, hesitated. As a result of that hesitation, the representative said, “Never mind, son.” and moved on. There were so many people who wanted that honor that even a bit of hesitation would cause one to be passed by.

My friend never could figure out why he took too long to answer a call he wanted so greatly.

Every day, life offers us opportunities that come and go, beating incredible odds at every turn. Consider how you came to be reading this: Your mother released an egg which made its way to the Fallopian tube. Of the 300 million or so sperm who were candidates to be the one, about 100,000 made their journey down the cervix to reach the egg. Most lost their way, such that about 200 actually had the chance to fertilize the egg. The DNA of that one sperm combined with the DNA of the egg to create you. If you are a believer in spiritual things, you understand that this fertilized egg became a vessel for your unique soul.

Seen in this light, you realize that such an improbable outcome implies a responsibility on you to make the most of your time.

In short, the time is now: the items on your bucket list; the long-neglected responsibilities; the expressions of gratitude. All these things are not only worthy of your time. It is incumbent on you to attend to them.

This isn’t to say that we should neglect the moments of quiet and stillness that help us reflect. We need to meditate and think so we will do the right things. We need to be fully engaged with children. We need to lie on our back and look up at the night sky. As John Wooden put it, “Be quick but don’t hurry.”

I had a helpful correspondence recently with a friend about how to know when we are to act to make things happen versus when we are to wait for things to happen. There certainly are times for both. Any time we feel we are settling for something less that what is best, we need either to act, or to refrain from an action. But we must do something.

When Kenny Loggins was wrting the song, “This is it”, he initially tried to make it into another love song that would be a top 10 hit. His father became ill and near-death. He had a heated conversation with his father in the hospital, insisting to him that he had a say in whether he lived or died. He left for a meeting with his co-writer:

I began to cry. “I’ve got it,” I announced to Michael, “it’s not a love song. It’s a life song.” I went on to tell him about my fight with my father and his fight for life. Suddenly all the previous lyric made sense and new additional lyrics literally came flooding out. When we hit the chorus I sang out “this is it” emphatically, for the first time. Michael looked at me in shock. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Positive,” I said. And so it went.

That evening I rushed back to visit my father at the hospital with my first demo of “This Is It” in my hand. As I played it for him in his room, tears came to our eyes, we held each other and silently I knew he’d be alright. My father lived four more good years before suffering kidney disease created by lack of blood flow, and died in 1987.

For you, too, this is it. Make no mistake where you are. When you are visited by opportunity, know yourself, your goals, and your mission, so there will be no hesitation in saying “Yes.”

The Fountain of Youth is Real

Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart.
For as rich as you are, it’s much better by far
To be young at heart.

Last night, for about 40 minutes, I found the Fountain of Youth. It was there, right beside us as we ran lap after lap on the black asphalt track. Because I was with youthful people, I was caught up in a whirlpool of energy and humor and earnestness and ambition.

Sometimes I forget that I was born when Eisenhower was President, before the Beatles invaded the United States, and before the Cuban missile crisis. Fun shared with others can sustain us such that we forget our sense of time.

And the fun we have! In this year alone, we’ve done an escape room, a coastal bike ride, a birthday workout, a scavenger hunt, an adult summer camp, a downhill mile, rock climbing, a solar eclipse viewing, a surprise birthday party, book clubs, and more, with more to come.

Of course, none of this fully constitutes a meaningful life. But a meaningful life needs to include friends, family, and adventures.

How do you cultivate a spirit of youth? You use your imagination. Recently, we were doing a workout at the local elementary school when my friend Sarah’s son climbed a 20′ pole and gave us a yell. Now, Sarah could have reacted with fright upon seeing her son far off the ground. Instead, we vowed that we, too, need to climb this pole. And we will!

My mother died at age 35, which seems awfully young to me now. Because of the situation in which I found myself, I had to grow up faster than one would like. I had to think about health insurance and paying bills and applying for financial aid, all with little help. I can’t help but think how happy she would be to see her son living out the life she was denied.

When the time comes to age gracefully, I will do that. For now, I will continue to drink deeply from the Fountain of Youth whenever it’s near.