Love as a verb

I spent much of this morning finding and listening to music about home, love, peace, and compassion. And on the way, I ran across a video called “Beautiful Earth” celebrating Earth Hour in the United Kingdom. Blake, the British musical group whose music you hear in the video, is loosely called a “boy band” although that hardly represents the vocal talents of this gifted vocal quartet who named themselves after William Blake, the poet and writer.

All this was sort of a mellow prelude for an after-lunch trip to the fish market and a local retailer that features close-out merchandise. A Saturday afternoon distraction of sorts.

I was unprepared for what would happen, an important lesson about living love, not just thinking about it.

After a quick visit to a nearby pet store to look at cats and dogs up for adoption, I headed to the real destination. Inside, in the bedding section, was a mother and her 22-year-old son who appeared to be a significantly challenged special needs child. He was hunched over and stared vacantly at the collection of colored sheets somewhat neatly stacked on the table.

As I walked over, I found myself uncomfortable being there, even wondering if it was safe. I walked down a different aisle to avoid him. A few minutes later, when I returned to an area just a few feet from him, I felt a certain eerie-ness. I turned. It was the young man, his head pointed away, but his right eye fixed intently on me.

I felt strange, “weirded out,” as some would say.

And then, in what had to be just a split second, I wondered how many others—like me—judged him with their eyes while avoiding our hearts. The feeling of eerie left.

I turned, looked directly at him, smiled and said, “Hi, how are you.” In a clear, strong voice he replied, “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

We had a 30-second conversation about what he was buying with his mother. “Sheets,” he told me saying that he really didn’t understand this “thread count” thing. We laughed.

And then the conversation ended but not before he looked at me and said, “Thank you for talking to me.”

As I watched him disappear down the aisle to join his mom, my eyes filled with tears.

I was embarrassed by my selfishness and all-too-quick judgment. But at the same time, I found myself being grateful for a moment in which love became an action and not just a thought.

High above this overcrowded place
A distant blackbird flies through space
And all he does is search for love.
Love is all that matters in the end…

Love is the oldest secret of the universe
Warm as the touch of two innocent lovers
When they discover that
Love is what we ever really know.

A past and future come and go
Because they do, Love stays with you…

Celebration” by Paul McCartney

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Doing nice

Mom and dad’s advice about being nice to friends, strangers and animals didn’t fall on completely deaf ears although some of my friends would argue that on occasion.

Being nice has lots of parts to it. Being polite. Being kind. Being patient… understanding, thoughtful, respectful, courteous, forgiving… The list isn’t quite infinite, but it gets close.

The word “being” implies a state of existing. For me, it’s a passive word in that it doesn’t require action. Being just is.

And when it comes to life there are lots of opportunities to respond with niceness or not.

I was reminded of this during the week while flying cross-country with plane loads of others who just wanted to get from here to there with as little hassle as possible. Generally people were patient and courteous—nice, if you will. And, with the exception of the woman who couldn’t pry the cell phone from her face while speaking loudly, I found myself thinking “nice,” too.

But then I started watching the flight attendants as they helped mothers with small children to their seats, served drinks, read safety messages, passed out headphones and the myriad other things that airline people do in the course of their jobs. I offered the usual “thank you’s” for the coffee and the pillow. Mom and dad would have been pleased.

And, then it struck me.

Maybe there is something more than just being nice. Maybe we should elevate it to “doing nice” to others. Sure, the flight attendants were just doing their jobs and getting paid for it. So, “thanks,” should be enough, right?

I realized that the answer to that question might, in a small way, make a difference in the lives of others.

So, while sitting in 8B I decided to think about what they were doing for me: making the trip more safe and pleasant, calming passengers during some turbulence and bringing countless glasses of water to the person in 6C.

While leaving the plane and under the moniker of “doing nice,” I spoke to one of attendants and thanked her for making the flight pleasant and enjoyable. She paused, looked at me and said, “You just made my day.”

That made me wonder why it took so little to do that. And, if it took so little effort on my part, why wouldn’t I practice “doing nice” more often: think store clerk, the guy on the help line, the boss, the neighbor.

Being nice is good. But why not trump it with “doing nice.”

Of greener grass and the proverbial fence

Winter’s weeks-long grip on the South has relaxed a bit of late. Temperatures, which have barely peaked above the 40s in what seems like forever, have climbed into the 60s much to the delight of children and adults playing in the parks and strolling along walking trails. It won’t be long before tulips push through the soggy ground and the local soccer fields turn green.

For some reason, this change of scenery reminded me of an expression I first heard from my dad when I was probably five years old. We were engaged in one of those “I wish” conversations where you want what you don’t have. After wishing things into the ground for several minutes, he looked at me and said, “Son, you know they always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” To me, this confirmed that fences were meant to deprive animals of the good fortune of better grass “over there.” In this case is was in the neighbor’s pasture.

My five-year-old logic said that if you took the fences down, horses and cows wouldn’t have to be jealous of another’s better fortune and could move wherever they perceived the greener grass to be. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most practical of solutions.

Despite my childish logic, his point didn’t escape me. Nor does it today.

But we do seem to live in a world that, just beyond our grasp, is slightly better than the one in our hands. We long for warmer weather in the throes of winter and more moderate temperatures during the summer. Or, we’re on the prowl for better jobs, friends, houses or lovers. And, because greener/better is always “over there,” we never quite find it.

Another take on the greener over there proverb came to me awhile ago as I was waiting for a friend to arrive at her office. As I waited patiently, one of her office mates began describing the strong odor of solvent coming from another office in the building. She complained about the thoughtlessness of the landlord and the lack of ventilation, how she’d had to cancel classes during the week and how miserable the situation made her. Despite my suggestion about not letting this take her joy away, nothing would shake her angry words about the problem in which she seemed firmly anchored.

Largely, her story is the same drama in which, at times, we act. Becoming so enwrapped in a situation, we cannot choose a different scene or better context. We see and experience only the moment in all its horrifitude. (That’s a new word.)

In my own experience, I find it’s difficult to see how stuck we really are. But others often see what we don’t, that we have options, choices and potential. Potential that goes unrealized as we look and relook at the same problem, seeing the same evidence over and over again.

Is there a way out? Almost always. Here are three questions that help:

  • Is there another way to look at this problem/situation/event? Think of it this way: How would someone completely unconnected describe it?
  • Am I letting this define who I am and how I think about myself? It’s a case of choosing a new script or a new role to take on.
  • If I can’t change the whole picture, is there a part I can change?

My dad’s admonition about the grass being greener on the other side is a good reminder that where we are often looks more bleak than where we aren’t. The idea of moving “over there” is, of course, tempting but not always practical.

Yet the grass remains under our feet. How we look at it is largely up to us.

What’s your gift?

Time for a trivia challenge.

Think “1970s.” Down select to “music groups.”

Who comes to mind?

Chicago, the Jackson Five, Earth Wind and Fire?

Excellent choices.

For many, the brother/sister duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter will be on the list. The Carpenters hold the distinction of being one of the best-selling music acts in history with a distinctively soft music style that was a sharp contrast to the loud and wild rock of the decade.

Karen died in 1983 of an eating disorder. She was just 33.

Even the most ardent music critics characterize her voice and the Carpenter style as among the country’s finest. And so would her fans. But, despite wide-spread acclaim for her obvious gift and natural talent, it may be something that, on various levels, she never accepted.

In a recent interview*, brother Richard was asked if Karen understood what a good voice she had. His answer was that both he and Karen realized they could do just about anything musically and that, at some level, she knew about her gift. Yet he said, “I don’t really know.”

And then he added, “You know, being human, we do tend to take things for granted. So, I honestly can’t answer that one. I’ve tried.”

It’s always interesting to me how others see talents in us that we overlook or diminish. Wow, what a wonderful gift they’re giving us.

It’s safe to say that taking our talents for granted and not using them isn’t the best place to be. Neither is being haughtily arrogant. But, if you placed these two approaches on a continuum, being in the middle isn’t necessarily the place to be either.

Perhaps this is another call to be a contribution in the world, being less concerned what that is or how credit is bestowed. Not waiting for all the circumstances to be right and for all the stars to align, but just to be a contribution.

To become carpenters ourselves, building others up and encouraging them.

To sing our song and to help others sing theirs.

*     *     *

[Another post about being a contribution can be found here.]

*Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 25, 2009

How do you measure a year?

Jonathan Larson’s catchy song “Seasons of Love” poses an interesting question. It’s from the overwhelmingly popular Broadway musical (and movie) Rent in which impoverished friends—young artists and musicians—struggle to survive and create in New York City. In the song, the cast considers how a year is best “measured.” Should it be by days or cups of coffee, they wonder. Or perhaps it should be in inches, miles, laughter or strife. They conclude the best way is in 525,600 minutes. But not just any kind of minutes, but moments of love.

(You can watch a video of the song here.)

Not to get heavy here, but it’s pretty clear that our world needs help. As you think about this year, it’s been one of difficult choices and anger that borders on hatred. But when you think about the new year, it is a collage of choices yet to be made, one after another.

And so, as we close out this year with its own 525,600 moments—98 percent of them already spent—and begin another decade, we do so, one moment at a time.

That presents a powerful opportunity to choose how we’ll live 2010. Will it be by bringing more compassion, care and loving concern to our neighbors and planet? That would be good.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s a sort of do less of, do more of, and give to others approach…

  • What if you could eliminate one habit from your life that no longer serves you well. How would that help you grow next year? (For me, being too skeptical or hesitant comes to mind.)
  • What if you could add one thing to your life. How could it improve your well-being and outlook? (More time to grow spiritually probably tops the list in my world.)
  • What could you give to others to make the world a better place? (Being more tolerant and patient fits for me.)

Think about the do less, do more, help others question. Then, begin each day thinking about how you can put each into practice. How about a scorecard to track your progress?

Think of it this way: Any time you do what’s on your list is one less moment of doing the opposite.

Want to join me? It’ll only take a minute.

I mean, it’s not like you don’t have 525,600 of them next year!

Writing to students

It’s nearly impossible to catch a network newscast of late without hearing a story about people helping people.  Even CNN has added its touch with “CNN Heroes, everyday people changing the world” broadcast Thanksgiving evening. It’s a welcome change from the (unfortunately all-to-common) coverage of violence and hate that, if unchecked in our thinking, can jade and discourage.

Dan Stroup's story of writing birthday letters to his students was shown on the Today Show. You can watch the segment by clicking on the photo above.

A particular story caught my attention this morning—the account of a teacher who, for the past 30 years, has sent handwritten letters to his students on their birthdays. You can watch the video HERE.

The ritual takes place every night in the living room of Dan Stroup, teacher of Bible studies at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis. Stroup, with an uncanny memory of his eighth-grade pupils, reflects on their time in class and poses questions about their lives today. Every note is closed with a Bible verse, written in red, at the bottom of the page.

He takes the job (he wouldn’t call it that) seriously and hopes that each letter brings encouragement and serves as a reminder that he remembers them.  “I don’t know who is going to need what and on what day, and I don’t know how God is going to use this,” he says.  “I want to make sure that I don’t drop the ball. Maybe this letter today is exactly what that person is going to need.”

Sometimes we don’t know the words that others need or how, if spoken, the words will fall on their ears. Maybe, if we listen, they’ll come to us. And if Stroup’s 30-year labor of love holds a lesson, it could be that his yearly act of 2500 individual letters will nurture each student. One by one.

“I will listen…”

The gift

iStock_000006416445XSmallI was scanning the online version of a local newspaper yesterday and I was amazed at comments from readers who, to put it mildly, seemed really angry (if not hostile) about the closing of a particular store in the city’s downtown area. It’s not what you think: They were angry because the store, in their opinion, catered to wealthy people and, as such, deserved to close. Yes, the logic is somewhat flawed.

It made me think about the opposite of anger and hostility. Could holding kind and loving thoughts make a difference in our experience and in that of others? We do know that people who constantly look at the emptiness of the glass (and embrace other limiting thoughts) have higher rates of depression and less health. And, conversely, we know that people who are positive, reinforcing and who express joy spread it to others. (Here’s a post about that.)

As I thought about the comments on the store’s closing, I was tempted to add my own to the ones already there. I would write about how such criticism of the store or others (regardless of their financial conditions) really didn’t better mankind much at all.

Instead, I went in a different direction. What if we thought about our lives as giving to others without regard to status or wealth? Those who are given lots share with those who don’t have. And those who have less share their gifts with others. Each of us has a gift to give.

What if you had a gift to give someone: a gift that you knew was beautiful and would bless others.

What if the person wasn’t ready to receive it? Would you withhold it because you fear it would be rejected and you along with it?

But what if the gift had to do with the Universe unfolding to someone and nothing to do with you?

And what if the gift–even if not acknowledged–would remain what it was, ready to come to life in the way a dormant flower or plant awakens in the spring? And what if it might, at some point in the future, be recognized for what it was?

And what if that gift was love?