Until Then, Smile!

Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning wrote,

“Everyone has their own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment.  Therein, he cannot be replaced nor can his life be repeated.  Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

I was thinking about this as I reflected on a conversation I had with a young man whom I had noticed  coming into the Starbucks store that I frequent. He was always super engaged with everyone, especially the great baristas, and he was forever positive and smiling.  After witnessing this over a period of weeks, I decided to join him at the counter, introduce myself and acknowledge his very special spirit.  His name is Andre and In the course of the conversation, he told me that he’s like this every day, all day and then, this:

“Why not smile? There will always be bills to pay and not enough money but why not smile?  There will come a time when we sleep–until then, smile.”

It occurs to me that Frankl and Andre are both describing what it is to go All-In, in life.  Life that is uniquely and gloriously generous.  Your life.  My life.  OUR lives, invested in our work, families and friends; playing, resting and attending all the while.

At any given moment, there are a thousand things bombarding this life we live and I confess to sometimes losing sight of the thing that is right in front of me, gently asking for my attention.  There are methods that I can employ to see–Notice–more fully but instead of getting all prescriptive about that here, let’s opt, in this moment, for forgiveness of our inevitable lapses.  Of course, we will strive, stumble and struggle to get it right and “until then, smile!”

Cafeteria Line

I originally published this in June of 2012.  Re-posting for those who follow my blog and may have missed this and for new followers to consider.  

Hospitals, Doctors’ offices and diagnostic centers are places people go for help with some kind of medical condition—usually one that they don’t understand.  The emotions carried into these physical spaces are varied but, most of the time, some degree of fear underlies all of them.  And fear knows no limit.  It accompanies all of us when we face the unknown.

In my teaching, I emphasize stopping as an important practice for those of us who are privileged to serve in these sacred places.  I say ‘sacred’ because in a healthcare environment, we are meeting people who are at their most vulnerable and the opportunity to heal begins the moment we encounter them.  Whether in the parking lot, the lobby, the halls and waiting rooms, not to mention the exam and patient rooms, every healthcare professional can, if they stop long enough, touch and contribute to our guests’ sense of wellbeing.

For now, forget about risk, compliance, HIPAA and whether you have all the right words.  Just stop, observe, listen and be willing to respond to a frightened person’s (usually) unspoken concerns.  I did this once in line in a hospital cafeteria.  A woman paying for her meal was distracted, hurried and the cashier was having difficulty ringing up the order.  I simply told her that I would pay for her meal so she could get to where she was going without delay.  At that moment, the woman broke down, sobbing.  She apologized and explained that she had just been told that her husband of 50 years was being transferred to Hospice.  That’s it.  In the blink of an eye, a person was able to share heartbreaking news with someone who until that moment was a complete stranger.  I didn’t plan to do anything ‘special’ with this stopping event.  Honestly, I was probably more anxious to keep the line moving.  But I was blessed and as it turns out, I was also a blessing to this very special person.

Stopping isn’t necessarily heroic.  But it is necessary if we want to touch others in a way that makes a difference.

All God’s

Sometimes, noticing takes the form of giving one’s subconscious a little breathing room.  It happened for me last night, seconds after turning out the light by my bed.  The “light” came on, I reached for a pen and journal and wrote words that flowed as naturally as sap from a Vermont Sugar Maple.

I love you

Hopeless,

Helpless,

Healthless.

 

I love you

Wealthful,

Healthful,

Generous.

 

I love you

Peacemaker,

Heart filler,

Love spiller.

 

I love you

Believer,

Doubter,

Sure-seeker.

 

I love you.

Come.

F-5

May 20, 2013

The first I knew that something horrible had happened came from friends on Facebook.  “Praying for the people in Oklahoma.”  Shortly thereafter, “We are Okay but friends and co-workers have lost homes.”  Then another and another.  I turned on CNN and learned that a terrible, powerful, monster of a tornado had struck Moore, Oklahoma.  It isn’t their first and we will learn soon if it is the worst.  An F-5.

This is personal.  This is home.  My Wife grew up only a few miles South of Moore in Norman.  I know this region because it’s where I was lovingly accepted into a family that became my family.  Some of them live there still:  My Brother-in Law, his wife and their three children.

I tried to call them.  “Your call cannot be completed at this time.”  I tried again, thinking that I’d get lucky.  I would not.  I heard the same message. That’s when they snuck up on me:  old emotions, tucked safely beneath plenty of layers of love, hope and great life and yet ready to surface, I learned, at exactly such a moment as this.  Just a machine-spoken message but one that I had heard years earlier when trying to call my parents in Texas from Oklahoma City after receiving reports of a terrible storm—an F5— that had torn through my hometown.  Technology then wasn’t like it is today.  No cell phones, internet, instant messaging or 24-hour news cycle.

“Your call cannot be completed…” Helpless. So, tonight, I shed new tears out of old wounds.  I relived an experience of 34 years ago.  The only option then was to drive 150 miles south with no means of learning the fate of my parents and sister until I turned onto their street and parked.

Tonight, as in 1979, too many people died.  Tonight, as in 1979, my family is safe.  And I cry.  Again.

I Shouldn’t Be Surprised

This morning, I was reflecting on a couple of recent encounters with my Starbucks community.  Of the three ‘regulars’ I visited with, PJ (not his real name) was the first to arrive.  He doesn’t usually come so early and that made me curious.  After completing my writing for the morning, I went over to check in.  We exchanged the usual niceties about the holiday but it was what followed, as I allowed time for listening, that was memorable.  PJ, it turns out was early because he and the rest of his family had been sick all weekend.  And even more meaningful information followed as we discussed the state of mental health care in the community.  TJ disclosed some of the most intimate facts about a close family member who had been hospitalized and required constant care for a serious mental illness. He went further: the family member died only a few months ago at much too early an age.

How does this type of sharing occur between two men who only know each other from brief exchanges at Starbucks?  I’m sure that there are a lot of factors at play here but I’m equally sure—certain, in fact—that if I hadn’t stopped and waited for a full conversation to take place, I would have missed the opportunity to enter this sacred space. 

God speaks to me in so many ways and I am thankful for His voice.  I am also humbled that He has chosen me to be a vessel for sharing stories like this one.  I wrote not long ago that, for me, Jesus is the ‘real deal.’  Jesus had the most important mission ever and it was fulfilled not by hurriedly going to places his advisors and handlers (read: disciples!) urged but rather, by stopping and listening to the least influential and those who suffered silently, regardless of time  or location.  His was an itinerary informed by His Father’s love. Emulating Jesus’ love and following His path is what I seek in my own imperfect journey.

Treadmills and Other Things

When we refer to life as a Treadmill it’s usually considered negative. It connotes routine, endless and repetitive.  I propose an alternative, while acknowledging generally the concept.

Isn’t everything that we do in this present, mortal state, circuitous?  Staying with the exercise/activity theme…golf always end up at the clubhouse; a hike begins at a trailhead and often  ends in the same place regardless of how far you go; basketball requires running back and forth along a 94ft long court and soccer is the same thing, except on a 100 yard field (with very few points scored for all of the effort!).

But the benefits of these and all forms of exercise are many. Some benefits are obvious like improving one’s health, having fun, and enjoying the satisfaction that comes as a result.  Additionally, I contend that exercise is a form of stopping and can be used to regain control.  For example, yesterday while swimming, I progressed from trying to get a Garth Brooks song out of my head (“If Tomorrow Never Comes”) to thinking of my Wife and Son enjoying worship together in NYC to an even clearer mind that allowed me to think creatively about a project I’m putting together at work.  One hour, 4000 yards swimming in a 25 yard pool.  If you do the math, that’s 160 laps (159 flip-turns!) during which, I was able to clear my head enough to reflect on blessings in my life as well as plan for the coming week.

Oh, and one more thing that came to me during my pool time:  The content of this blog. That’s a lot to happen while on the proverbial treadmill!  So, regain control doing whatever form of back and forth, circuitous, seemingly non-productive activity that you enjoy.

And, as always, let me know how it works out for you!

Prune and Park

Idea #3: There’s a lot about life that is beautiful: nature; people; architecture; work; play.  Regaining control isn’t about excluding things.  It’s more about being conscious and intentional about how much beauty we can enjoy at any one time.  Marigolds are beautiful and they provide a wonderful accent to landscapes.  Left untended, however, they’ll take over!  Just like the necessity of periodically pruning marigolds back, for me to effectively manage my busy-ness, I have to make sure my commitments don’t cause me to overextend and, thus, take over my life.  So, keep your life’s landscape beautiful by pruning the activity vines regularly.

Idea #’s 4&5: Everyone I know wants to find the closest parking place and get in the shortest line.  This isn’t a “Type-A” phenomenon.  It’s human nature.  I offer these ideas, though, especially for the Type-A’s amongst us. Park farther away and get in the longest checkout line.  Doing these two things consistently is guaranteed to improve the quality of your life and actually save time.  Your life is better because you’ve just eliminated two of the sources of DAILY frustration.  When you park farther away, there are many more choices, making parking easier and faster. As an added bonus, you’ll get a little more exercise and avoid the competition for that ‘perfect’ spot!

When you get in the longest checkout line with the expectation that it will take longer to get through, you won’t be obsessing over that person who is actually writing a check (!?) for the purchase!   Adopting these practices will slow you down, metaphorically, but will not actually delay you by more than 1 minute and 25 seconds per event (I made that up but I’ll bet I’m not too far off!)

Three more ideas for regaining control:

  • Prune the activity vine
  • Park farther away
  • Get in the longest Line

Let me know how these work for you, OK?

The Road Less Traveled

In yesterday’s post, I offered a definition of stress and continued my advocacy for Stopping.  Stopping requires making choices.  Stopping in today’s blurry existence is essential for peace and true fulfillment.  I committed to offering 12 ideas to help us regain our focus.  Today, ideas one and two:

1. Learn to say No

If you’re like me, there are a hundred different things vying for your time and attention.  Many are good things; things that you could do and make a positive contribution.  But there is only so much time and if you fill that time saying yes to everyone and everything, there will be no time left for YOU. No time to reflect, regenerate and revel in the sweet things in life.  Saying ‘Yes’ to 10 requests means saying ‘No’ to 90.  After about number 46, it should get easier.

2. Turn off the devices (Create a Screen-Free Zone)

PC’s. Phones. Pads. We all have them and they’re on and in front of us nearly every waking minute of our blurry lives.  Create a ‘screen-free’ zone (yep, including the TV screen!) and declare it off limits to all these electronic gizmos.  The screen-free zone is not devoid of stimulus, however.  Consider a good, old-fashioned book or magazine.  How about a sketch pad for drawing or jotting down things you’re thankful for?  And it doesn’t have to be a solitary cell.  Invite your spouse, kids or a friend to enter this sacred space with you and share stories of the day/week.  And instead of caving to the temptation to plan your future (holidays are upon us, eh?), think about or share memories of favorite holiday times, past.  This is reality.  This is stopping.

I remember hearing someone say not too long ago that Poetry “slowed me down.”  I like that and I have experienced it.  I’ll leave you with a classic by Robert Frost.  It’s fitting because these ideas for stopping and de-stressing are totally about making choices, just as described in “The Road Less Traveled.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s About Time!

Hans Selye, the late Canadian endocrinologist and “father” of stress research, defines stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.”  Some people use the term stress only to describe unpleasant circumstances, such as doing taxes, the daily commute or the sound of screaming children.  Stress is not the circumstance, it is our response to the circumstance.  It is not ‘out there’ but rather inside us.  Stress, as a term, is neither negative nor positive.  The word simply describes an entirely normal psychophysiological process without which we would die.

Distress is the appropriate term to use in describing something negative or destructive.  So, in the words of Forest Gump, “Stress happens” (I know.  The T-Shirt and bumper stickers used a different “S” word but work with me here, ok?).

We are living in a time of unprecedented stress inducers:

  • Exponential change
  • Universal indebtedness
  • Hurry and noise
  • Complexity and overload
  • Working Parents and one or both holding down more than one job
  • Greater career insecurity
  • Aloneness

In times like this, Stopping would appear to be counterintuitive if not suicidal, metaphorically speaking.  I would argue however, that there has never been a more important, lifesaving act for us to embrace than calling, ‘time-out.’  So, “stress happens” and Stopping is hard.  As we enter the crazy, hectic, fun, meaningful, memory-making holiday season, I will offer 12 ideas for regaining control and balance in our lives.  Individually and collectively, these ideas will address stress and emphasize going all-in with our friends, family and co-workers.  I’ll post 2 ideas per day in order to have them all out there before Thanksgiving Day.  For now, and in preparation for consider the blessing of allowing ourselves to be interrupted by God.  This is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in a wonderful book entitled, Life Together:

“God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions…It is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.”

Happy Stopping!

Are You Awake?

Are you awake?  After Stopping and Noticing, a third behavior that I emphasize for leaders is going All-In.  For me that means being fully present in the moment.  The Sisters of Mercy had as a charism, Presence which we can all aspire to.  It involves much more than doing what the text books on communication describe like maintaining eye contact, acknowledging with ‘uh huh’ and the like.  There’s nothing wrong with those things but being All-In begins with a decision to dedicate every ounce of yourself to every interaction you have.  Tuning out distractions is important and anticipating what those distractions may be in order to consciously enter the moment should happen in advance of going All-In.

Maybe it helps to use more familiar language, like paying attention to what is before us at the moment.  This is the heart and soul of the gift of Stopping.  It is, says David Kundtz, “the trait that defines the Stopped person as aware of what is going on right now.”

Apply this idea to something that happens to most of us who work a Monday through Friday job.  I’ll call it the Monday morning mantra and it goes something like this:

Worker 1: “Good morning!”

Worker 2:“Good morning.”

Worker 1:“How was your weekend?”

Worker 2:“Nice.  We went to the lake and it was beautiful.”

Worker 1:“Great.  We are going to Singapore next month.  It’s going to be the trip of a lifetime.  Here, let me show you our itinerary…”

This simple example highlights a type of distraction; we’ll call it ‘one-upsmanship,’ that any of us might fall prey to.  Being all in—paying attention—involves respecting another enough to stay with them in the conversation.  It means not being busy trying to figure out how I can steer the exchange in a direction that makes it about me.  Effective listening is the result of developing openness to really hearing the other person.  Instead of thinking of what you are going to say in response as someone speaks to me, I listen and am receptive to the other person.  I take in consciously what they say and how they say it.  In this way, I am much more likely to respond in a manner that affirms and encourages.

Considering the fact that many of the conversations we have at work and home have far more import than the Monday morning mantra, the ante is upped considerably and the degree of presence that we demonstrate will make a huge difference in the outcome.

Try going All-In, today.  See if it doesn’t make a positive difference in the lives of those you care about.