Thank you for “Lib Strong”

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, and at least one mother spent the day preparing a memorial service for her daughter. A full of life 3-year old who had battled cancer for over a year left this world last week. But let me be clear, Libby Jones left this world having made a genuine difference. Paraphrasing something I said in the homily for my infant son 23 years ago, Libby did more good in her too short life, than most of us do in many decades on earth.

In a sad, but triumphant service yesterday, the tributes to Libby painted a picture of a little girl filled with joy and talent. She was a mischievous sweetheart with an infectious personality that drew people irresistibly into her circle of love. The City of Charlotte has “Lib Strong” signs, shirts and bumper stickers everywhere. Thousands followed Libby’s story on the Caring Bridge website.

During the service one family friend described how Libby used to deal with life’s little challenges using the phrase: “That’s why God made _______.” Spill some milk? “That’s why God made paper towels.” A toy needs to be fixed? “That’s why God made Daddies.” There is a stain on your shirt? “That is why God made washing machines.”

What struck me profoundly, however, and will stay with me forever, was hearing all of the reasons why God made Libby. I do not have a transcript of the remarks from the service, and the words were so beautiful that I don’t want to try to recreate them from memory. But the essence of the message is something for all of us to contemplate.

Many of the things I have written over the years have been focused on finding ones life’s purpose and fulfilling our intended role on this planet. The Universe works. As imperfect as it may be, the earth moves around the sun like clockwork. The air provides oxygen that allows us to breathe. A complex mass of cells form to create bodies and brains….people are born and people die.

I believe that this Universe has a spiritual thread running through it that ties us all together. No, we are not here by accident. We all have a purpose. As an observer of people, it seems clear to me that the purpose for most, perhaps, all of us, is to care for those who need care, to educate and inspire those who wish to learn and grow, to create jobs, to create art. To generally lift people up, however they may need it at a particular moment, may be our greatest purpose.

As I listened to the many beautiful reasons why God made Libby, I couldn’t help thinking about why God made me…..Stephen Covey says we should begin with the end in mind. And while I pray that my work isn’t done yet, someday it will be. I can only hope that when that time comes someone will be able to find examples of where I cared for those who needed care, educated and inspired those who wished to learn and grow, created jobs, created art and generally lifted people up.

Libby’s father, Josh, reminded us that our priorities should be family, friends and faith. That is a beautiful perspective that I will always carry with me. Thanks to Libby, I am forever changed and will always be grateful for the reboot that she inspired in my life. I guess that is just one more reason why God made Libby.

’tis the season

I wrote another Holiday Letter this year. For the past two years my son and daughter composed the missive. Ever since I put a collection of Holiday Letters in my book, My Father’s Writings, I felt less compelled to write a new one. But this year was different. I had written down a couple of quotes that I ran across during the year, with the idea of writing a Holiday Letter around them. Then I realized that what I have always done at Christmas time, and what I was setting out to do again this year, was really to write a blog, not a Holiday Letter. In looking back over almost 20 years of letters, it is clear now that I was essentially writing an annual print blog before the word “blog” was a part of our vocabulary.

Writing holiday commentary around Karlfried Graf Durckheim’s words isn’t too much of a stretch for a Holiday Letter: “Thus, the first and most vital practice in everyday life is to learn effectively to value those moments in which we are touched by something hitherto undreamt of.” Indeed, one could argue that Gift of the Magi, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, the candles of Chanukah and the magic of Santa Claus all fit within the context of this quote. But rather than expand on that theme for a Holiday Letter, I went with a brief family update, and one simple message for this season. I hope you find some meaning in it.
SONY DSC
Holiday Letter ‘13

This year we have learned that life is what happens while we make other plans. Just a year ago it was all so different; Craig was broadcasting baseball in Mobile, Alabama, Paige was enjoying the creativity and love of The Cambridge School of Weston, and I was commuting to Richmond, Virginia every week. Now, Craig is broadcasting and writing for mlb.com in Melbourne, Australia, Paige is in the middle of her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and I have started a new job at a great firm with a Boston office.

Many of you have children off on their own unexpected adventures, so you know that we can only prepare them, we can’t control them! Just heard last night that Craig is trying his hand at broadcasting for the Melbourne Ice of the Australian Woman’s Ice Hockey League. Paige is playing Ultimate Frisbee, and had tournaments this fall in Virginia and Georgia. Reid, well he is just being Reid, now a 23-year old young man who still exhibits the innocence of a child. Karen has made it her newest project to find a great group home for him that will allow him to live as independently as possible in future years. One of this year’s highlights was celebrating my Dad’s 80th birthday with family and friends – it’s wonderful to see him so happy and healthy.

One of my favorite times each week is when a young man arrives at the Sunday morning church service pushing an older man in a wheelchair. The connection between the two is palpable; one is the caretaker, the other, the-cared-for. The man in the wheelchair has special needs – not unlike Reid, so I am sure we have a soft spot for the situation. I was scribbling some notes for this letter in church last Sunday when they arrived. Moments later the caretaker ascended the steps to the pulpit and, for the first time in my experience, did a reading. As someone who believes that there is no such thing as coincidence, it did not surprise me that the subject of his reading was just what I needed for inspiration.

He read a passage in which John told a crowd to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” and the people asked him “what then should we do?” In reply John said: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” That really makes it all sound so simple. And it is.

I can think of just three times in my life when I actually felt the physical experience of being weightless – like I was actually floating a bit. One was when I handed out $50 bills at a store a few days before Christmas, another was when Craig and I delivered Christmas presents to children whose parents were incarcerated, and the third was when Karen and I joined a group from our church to serve dinner to 75 homeless men at a shelter in Boston. In each case my heart was racing, my smile was uncontrollable and I found myself a little short of breath. The exhilaration was scary good…..all of these experiences had one thing in common – giving without any expectation of return.

We have all heard the phrase “higher than a kite,” which is typically used to describe someone who has taken drugs or had too much to drink. Yet, I cannot imagine anything approaching the ‘high’ that comes from selfless acts of giving. Let us all be lifted above soaring kites this holiday season, and fill the coming year with random acts of kindness and exhibitions of unconditional love.

Giving and Paying Back

I am sad today.

Everything in my little world is pretty much as it should be — my son was the broadcaster for a no-hitter by the Mobile Baybears last night, my daughter is going off to college tomorrow, I am about to go for a run with my wife, and my other son, Reid, continues to live a life of inspiration.

I am sad today because a plane with two UPS employees has crashed, and two wonderful people lost their lives.

The loss of any life is tragic, so why does this accident move me — and how do I know that these pilots were ‘wonderful people’?

UPS has been in my family’s life for many years. Whenever one of the trucks came to our house, Reid would get all excited. Never did any driver seem annoyed or turn away from this child with special needs. No, they always engaged him and often let him look in the back of the truck to see the packages. (Yes, that was a thrill for him.) Some brought him UPS paraphernalia, much of which he still has today, as a 23-year old young man. He dressed up as the “UPS man” for Halloween for about 15 years.

UPS costume with Damon

When you experience the warm hearts of these drivers over two decades you cannot help but draw the conclusion that the company itself has a heart. I have come to see it in the people at the UPS package stores, and even in the few executives I have met. We should never forget that every act of kindness we extend ripples throughout the human pond. I am reminded of what Matthew wrote in the New Testament.  Jesus said:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

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.’”

I am sad today because a company with a great heart — a company that touches thousands of lives in a positive way daily — has lost two members of its family. They feel like a part of my family, and I will pray for them and their loved ones. We should all be thankful for those who care about “the least” among us. I have witnessed firsthand the divinity of unconditional love.

Passion and Compassion…

I have spent many Sunday mornings wondering what I would say if the minister pulled me aside just before the service was about to start to tell me she was unable to do the sermon. With only the benefit of a few minutes to read the assigned readings for the week, would I be able to deliver as a substitute preacher? What would I say and how would it play?

Oddly, perhaps, this is a challenge I would welcome, and my wish sort of came true one weekend. Our minister called me on a Saturday afternoon to ask me if I could step in the next day, as there was an illness in her family, and she needed to be at the hospital. Forgetting that I had to prepare for a major presentation at work on Monday, and somehow forgetting that we were hosting a group of teenage girls for dinner and a sleepover, I said “yes.”

016I found myself sitting in the back row of the church when the service started. I was not participating in the music and prayers; I was scribbling notes on a pad of paper on which I had started writing an outline earlier that morning. I don’t remember much about what I said that morning, and since I seldom stick to my notes, it isn’t even recorded anywhere. But I do recall that the sermon started with these words: “one mile, 14 minutes.” That may seem unremarkable if you are a runner. But I was quoting a text message from someone who used to run half marathons at a much faster pace, so it must have had some special meaning…Yes, it was a text from my brother who had recently been through his second surgery for a brain tumor that he was not going to give in to.

So, who had the greater challenge – me, just talking about life and Spirit to a bunch of captive subjects, or my brother who was battling his way back to full health?

I guess “challenges” are relative. Every time my 22-year old son has to put on a coat or buckle a seat belt or go to the bathroom it is a struggle. Every time he has to form a sentence to communicate what he is thinking, it is a challenge. Thinking about how challenging life is for a person with special needs, makes my little challenge of preparing a last-minute-sermon seem pretty manageable. But why am I writing about challenges?

I had this sudden flash of the obvious – there are good challenges and bad challenges. The real issue is how we respond to a challenge, whether we are facing it or observing it. And that is where it gets interesting. It is almost always best to respond to a challenge we are facing with passion (one of my favorite words). And the best response when we observe someone facing a challenge is compassion. Two really beautiful words – passion and compassion….two very powerful tools in a world that is filled with challenges. Two words that could change the world if we could all just hold them in our consciousness, live them and encourage others to hold them dear.

These amazing words — Passion and Compassion — can be said differently as: Create and Appreciate. Battle and Support. Try and Help. Seek and Encourage. Love and Love Even More.

I am passionate about helping people through my speaking and writing. I feel very blessed. “For those to whom much is given, much is expected.” We all have been given gifts that are uniquely ours. How can we best use them? With passion, I hope.

Gratitude is . . .

In a response to my post last week, Julie Fleming, whose writing I truly enjoy, told me she found great satisfaction – even a little magic – writing hand-written “thank you” notes. She, like I, was inspired by John Kralik’s book: A Simple Act of Gratitude. (You can read Julie’s blog at http://www.lexinnovablog.com)

Gratitude seems like such a simple concept.

    1. grat·i·tude

/ˈgratəˌt(y)o͞od/

Noun

The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Much is written about ways in which we should practice gratitude. For some reason, though, I have resisted practicing gratitude formally by following the recommended rituals. That may seem a little odd in the face of overwhelming evidence that keeping a so-called ‘Gratitude Journal’ makes us happier. Yet, I have not been able to discipline myself to do that, or to do anything else that is recommended by those who have studied the phenomenon.

One writer suggested that we should cultivate gratitude by taking a moment during each meal to tell those gathered what we are thankful for – not just during the Thanksgiving meal, but always. (It could lead to surprises, though, as I remember one Thanksgiving dinner at which our special son, Reid, said he was most thankful for Oprah and Wheel of Fortune.)

snowman12No doubt we can think of gratitude for things in general like health, jobs, hopes and dreams. And to your daughter you might say something like “because of you, I had a blast building the first snowman of the season.” To your wife you might say “because of you, I return home with joy from every business trip.” To your child you might say “because of you, I continually experience the joy of youth and seeking.” To your friends you might say “because of you, I never feel alone.”

Gratitude should be a big part of the season that features a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life. What might people in your life say to you? It is important to look at how the world would be different if you had not been here. In a holiday letter many years ago I wrote that we might explore gratitude by using the phase “because of you.”  With this in mind you might hear from those around you: Because of you, I felt love in one of my darkest moments. Because of you, we raised important funds for our charity. Because of you, my child learned to play sports with values and perspective. Because of you, I got to attend the greatest sporting event ever. Because of you I learned how to …….  If we think about all of the people we have supported, and all whom we have coached, and all whom we have led to new ideas, then we should be able to show some real gratitude to ourselves. Let’s remember to be kind and loving to the one person that can do the most for others in this New Year.

In Samuel Johnson’s novel, Rasselas, the main character lives in a world where everyone’s needs are taken care of—food, music and entertainment are bountiful…everything is perfect, except that he can never leave. Believing there has to be more, Rasselas, finds a way to escape into the real world on an adventure that he dreamed about his whole life — a search for true happiness. What he finds is that people are always looking for happiness outside of themselves, when it is, in fact. always found on the inside. I saw a poster on the StoryPeople website in which a character is carrying a box “filled with things everyone else thinks you should have done.” The caption says: “This box only weighs a lot if you have forgotten to do the stuff you wanted to do all along.” I hope we can all do the stuff we REALLY want to do in 2013, and I hope it includes staying connected to those we love—because we need each other now, more than ever.