Choice Reflections

When I was in college, I had a job in the student accounts office. Every afternoon, it was my responsibility to reconcile the day’s receipts – to make sure that the total of cash and checks in stacks on my desk matched the ledger of payments made. It was meticulous and systematized work. And it had to happen every day. It was inexorable: I knew that every afternoon I would clock in precisely at 3:00 and spend the next two hours with my pencil, adding machine, and a stack of account ledgers.

One spring afternoon, late in my junior year, a friend convinced me to skip work in favor of a trip to the park. This was completely against my sense of responsibility. It took a lot of cajoling and needling on my friend’s part to convince me to be truant. Once I agreed, however, I felt something akin to the spring sap in the trees coursing through my own blood stream and I was lost to the glee of the moment. I had no excuse, so I didn’t call my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be in. I just didn’t show up.

We had a great time at the park – I felt a bit guilty at first, but that soon gave way to the exhilaration of playing with abandon. In that world before cell phones, no one knew where we were, no one could reach us with sober responsibilities: we were free!

Returning to campus later, everyone I saw asked where I had been. “Mrs. Peacock was looking for you. She was worried when you didn’t show up for work.” It seemed that every student on campus had reason to stop by the student accounts office that afternoon, only to be questioned by a concerned Mrs. Peacock about whether they had seen me.

I spent the next day with my stomach roiling from a soupy mess of anxiety, dread, and regret. I had no idea what would happen when I arrived at work that afternoon, but I felt certain that I deserved whatever consequences Mrs. Peacock served  up. A tiny part of me resented that this awful feeling was the price of one carefree afternoon. I  felt remorse about causing concern and extra work for my boss, along with a generalized shameful flush of self-loathing: I was a bad person for shirking responsibility – people of character don’t just skip work to have fun.

All these years later, it doesn’t really matter what happened when I was finally face-to-face with Mrs. Peacock.  Obviously, I survived.

This could be a story about learning to accept responsibility, about showing up when you’re counted on, or about facing the consequences of your choices. OR, it could be a story about throwing off the shackles, making the best choices for yourself regardless of censure from others, choosing to live life fully in the face of pressure to conform to rigid social norms.

It could be a story about one perfect, pure afternoon of sunlight and laughter at Flora Park: a last gasp of childhood before fully facing the realities of the adult world.

It might be none of those.

That is the gift that time bestows on our choices: we can reflect upon them and see them from a variety of perspectives. Many of life’s stories can be crafted with multiple meanings, constructed as metaphors for a wide range of life lessons.

It is infinitely harder to construe meaning, much less multiple possible lessons, from the choices we are living with right now. We make choices and we live with those choices. Often, we must live with those choices regardless of how stressful or difficult or unfulfilling they turn out to be. In a world rife with inspirational quotes and “blame yourself” memes (“Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.” – Wayne Dyer) we learn that it isn’t ok to be unhappy with the consequences of our choices. Suck it up, buttercup – or make a different choice.

But what if it isn’t that simple? Just yesterday a friend commented, “…things are more stressful than I would like. And I see no way to change the choices we’ve made.” What if the choice is right, but the consequences, what we live with right now, are painful? What if, regardless of whether we chose rightly or wrongly, choosing differently now is out of reach financially, or prohibitively impactful in the lives of others who depend on us (children, elderly parents, etc.)?

Sometimes, the resources required to change the choice you’ve made are not simply inner resources – they are real resources you don’t have – like money, time, or knowledge. Lack of those resources might be insurmountable in this moment. What now?

These are the places where we get stuck, and there are no easy solutions for getting unstuck. Since there are no easy solutions, perhaps it would be best if we merely tried to withhold judgment – of ourselves or of others. From the outside, life might look static, like we are simply living inside the painful choice we’ve made. But on the inside, what if it could feel like we’re proactively holding space for what will emerge? If we replace self-loathing (the roiling stomach of anxiety, dread, and regret) with self-loving-kindness, with compassion, for the flawed, human person who made these choices?

Eventually, someone will emerge from the painful choice-cocoon we’ve constructed for ourselves. There will be time, then, to craft meaning and construct metaphors and life lessons; to articulate how our choices helped define the someone who emerged. Clarity tends to come upon reflection rather than in the immediacy of now. And because the attribution of meaning is one of – if not THE – great gifts of time, we have to wait for it. It can’t be rushed.






Last year, my friend Layne and I both ordered “word of the year” bracelets from a small internet company. The word I chose: MOVE. As in so many areas of my life, I am late to the party, but I’ve finally arrived: I am in the midst of the disarray of packing, and one week from today I will be on the road.

While I have not been in this house for the entire nineteen years I’ve lived and worked in Cedar Rapids, the last time I moved my friends Sara and Amy were at my apartment the night before throwing things into boxes and sneaking items to the dumpster when I had my back turned. There was no careful culling through of my stuff, no separation of wheat from chaff. Consequently, the need to do so this time is significant. And slightly overwhelming.


Throughout my small house, the rooms are in complete disarray. Nonsensical piles here and there have the look of unwanted detritus left behind in abandoned buildings. Nothing could be further from the truth – if it is still in the house it is wanted. Or I believe it will be wanted by someone, if not by me. I’ve picked some items to give as gifts: the Disney Trivial Pursuit game, the scented candles which would just melt in my storage unit this summer, the wrist guards I’ve already given to Eli and Abby Kohl (who immediately used them as part of their superhero garb). Others are too new-ish or too nice-ish to toss and will be donated to Goodwill. A huge tub of books are free game for any visitors or helpers who arrive to move my stuff to storage on Monday.

There is something about packing your belongings that feels like a reckoning – the process of calculating the worth of a life. When my house was together and things in place, it felt cozy, welcoming, homey. Each item had at least a small part in creating this impression. Taken apart, deconstructed, each component is judged on its own merit. Mostly, my things are humble and not worth much in a monetary sense. They start to look shabby and random when taken individually, wrapped in newsprint. Regarded as mere objects, my belongings don’t have anything special or grandiose to say about me or my life. I look at bare walls, studded with oddly spaced nails and picture hangers and begin to wonder if there was meaning in my having lived here or if my life has been as shabby and random as my things.

Luckily, those moments pass and I recognize them for what they are – a way to distance myself from the reality, the enormity, of the change in process. In the very moment I am about to become disconnected from myself to escape that reality, I find or pick up an object and memory comes flooding in – the pink depression glass water goblets that belonged to my grandmother; the charm against the evil eye that was my souvenir when Rosemary returned from Turkey; a faded newspaper  photo of my sister and her friends dressed as Jackie O. for an “art happening” in Iowa City. That’s when my accounting of my life’s worth shifts – when I remember that the value of these things lies in either their usefulness or, more importantly, the connection they offer to the people I love. By this reckoning, I am wealthy beyond measure.

Each time I finish packing a box in the chaos that is barely recognizable as my living room, I label it, put the lid on and carry it into the one room in the house that appears to contain order. Here there are stacks rather than piles. Things are hidden, but named. I walk in and immediately feel more calm about this move.


When I can’t continue – either from the need to just sit down for a while, or from the desire to connect with others in the present moment (as opposed to the overwhelming connection to the past as I pack) I head for the dining room table. This is the one spot in which the present still reigns supreme in my house. Neither the past nor the limbo of “packed” have a hold here. I check Facebook, text Molly or Mike, think “I should clean this stuff up” knowing full well that I won’t until I have to.


When my break is over and I head back to the grindstone, I stand for a moment staring at the remains – it seems as if so much has already been boxed up and made sterile by its placement in neatly labeled white cartons, yet there is still so much to do. I suddenly think of a time in the not-too-distant future when I will begin to reverse this process. The sterility of the packed cartons will give way to the mess of unpacking. And I can imagine my own joy in reuniting with these shabby things that, today, seem to have so little value. And I know full well that I will feel every bit as challenged, as overwhelmed, in that moment as I feel in this one. It makes me smile, and I suddenly think music is called for. I log into Pandora and find myself singing along with Imagine Dragons (“it’s time to begin, isn’t it?”) as I try to find a reasonable way to pack a three tiered dessert tray.

I am definitely, finally, moving.



Berries (not pearls) of Wisdom

“…autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads, as in those fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels . . .” – Charles Dickens

On a photo excursion with Mike this past weekend, I discovered that nature has more lessons to teach me than I realized. This particular day, the lessons were about how we view the world, the filters and perspectives through which we look at our lives or the events that comprise our days. And my teachers? The bright autumn berries that abound in the woods through which our path rambled.

Shortly after hitting the trail at Prairie Park Fishery, both Mike and I noticed luscious red berries. They were lit by the sun and glowing red amid yellow and green flora. I wanted desperately to photograph them, but they were on the wrong side of a chain link fence. So, I attempted to photograph them through the fence. The result? The fence got in the way, giving the berries second billing.

Berry Lesson #1:  In order to see things clearly it is important to clear your field of vision.

Remove or get past extraneous stuff that clutters up your thinking. This is so much easier to say than do, even when taking a simple photo on a Saturday afternoon. But when you are contemplating decisions about big things – your relationships, your livelihood – it is easy to pile nonessential pieces into the picture. Suddenly you’re focusing on something tangential, and you’ve distracted yourself from the central issue. Clear out the psychological and emotional clutter, and your vision will clear as well. Trust me, the end result is worth it.

A bit further along on our walk, I noticed a tree with vines curling around its trunk. I loved the look and the texture of the bark, the  symbiosis between tree and vine. So I took a photo…

…and continued on my way. Eventually, Mike and I turned around and began to retrace our steps at a leisurely pace. Mike moved ahead when I stopped to get a closer look at something on the ground. When I caught up with him, I noticed Mike was avidly shooting pictures. As I moved up next to him, I saw that he had in his viewfinder a profusion of bright yellow berries which contrasted beautifully against the brilliant blue sky. As I admired his find, I suddenly recognized what I was looking at – the tree I had already photographed. I had been so focused on the textures and the winding vine, I had completely missed the presence of the berries!

Berry Lesson #2:  There IS such a thing as being too focused.

While focus and single-mindedness can be great, we’ve all heard cautionary tales of people who were so focused on achieving a particular goal that they missed out on some beautiful opportunities in their lives. When I was originally photographing the tree, I would have sworn there were no berries in the  vicinity – yet, take another look at the tree photo and you’ll see yellow berries. They are clearly visible to all (except to me as I honed in on the trunk and winding vine).

On our photo excursions, Mike is forever reminding me “Don’t forget to look up!”. It’s a great reminder to change my perspective, to switch up the view from which I am looking at things. Too much focus keeps our eyes locked straight ahead, causing us to miss important things in the periphery.  When I finally did look up, thanks to Mike’s example and exhortation, I saw this:

After a while, I began to think I had already snapped photos of every possible view or item on the Fishery trail. Then the low battery light started flashing on my camera, and suddenly I was in a frenzy to grab a last few pictures before the camera shut itself off. This led to some hurried and/or random shots, such as this one:

What’s it a picture of? Its just nothing – no interest, no composition, no focal point. When we are in too big a hurry, momentum takes over. Sometimes, momentum carries us forward, sometimes it just keeps us moving. I often think that our culture, obsessed as it is with multitasking and speed and noise, mistakes all this activity for meaningfulness. As I was racing along, hurriedly snapping, I didn’t take one worthwhile shot.

Berry Lesson #3:  In daily life, and photo excursions, you’ve got to slow down and breathe deeply in order for the best things to happen – and to recognize them when they do.

After I snapped the shot above, I looked up to see Mike standing still. His camera, however, was clicking rapidly as he tried to capture a moving target. He said that several blue birds were chasing each other around a particular thicket. I joined him, but I was no match for those little birds – I couldn’t find them with my lens no matter what I did. I trotted back and forth across the trail for a minute, in an unproductive attempt to outrun the winged critters.

Then I stopped, laughing at myself. I let my shoulders relax into the warmth of the sun shining down on them. I smelled the crisp and slightly decaying scent of the leaves piled on the ground. I thought, briefly, “I am happy”. I could see some movement in one tree, so I lifted my camera until I could just barely glimpse something that didn’t look like a leaf. I didn’t care about the end product; I cared about the fact that I was – that second – where and with whom I wanted to be, engaging with my surroundings in a fully conscious manner. And in that moment – CLICK!  – one of the best things happened:


It had been gray and raining for days, so sunshine on Monday was a welcome sight. Rather than wait and walk later in the evening, after dark (as you will know from last week’s post is my latest habit), I was determined to get outside and walking while the sun was still shining. I took off in the slightly sketchier direction – the one I wouldn’t head in if it were dark and I was by myself – so cheerful there was an actual bounce in my step.

The neighborhood was alive with people: a couple of punk teens with bad-ass hair on banged-up mountain bikes, a young mother trying to wrangle three toddlers out of a leaf pile and into the house, two girls walking slowly down the sidewalk in stocking feet. About two blocks from home, I noticed side-by-side yards. One yard had been meticulously raked of leaves, while the yard next to it was a matted carpet of orange and yellow. The boundary between the two lawns was clearly, meticulously, demarcated.

As I approached, I noticed an older woman raking in the side yard of the well-manicured lawn. She looked at me and broke into a lovely grin.

“Beautiful evening for a walk,” she said.

“Sure is. Looks like you’ve had quite the job keeping up with those leaves,” I replied.

“Right! There’s another rake if you want to join me,” the woman said with a mischievous smile. (I believe her eyes literally twinkled as she said it.)

We both laughed, and I continued on my genuinely merry way. About a block later, I stopped to photograph some graffiti which ordered me to:

but rather than consider the definition of art, as directed, I found myself contemplating an entirely different question. Why didn’t I take the proffered rake and help that woman finish cleaning up her yard? 

In the moment of our brief conversation, I had assumed that the woman and I were engaging in noncommittal stranger interaction. Just a friendly passing of a few congenial seconds. It had not occurred to me to take her seriously and join her at her labor. But as soon as the question came to my mind, I knew I had blown an opportunity. I had declined an invitation.

Lately, I have complained about being at a…pause point…in my life. Near the end of one road but not yet able to set foot on the next. I have been chafing at this, contemplating ways that I can experience forward movement or at least some kind of engagement in the NOW, so I don’t revert to old (nearly lifelong) habits of living in and for the future. I know from bitter experience that when I exist in a future context, I have a tendency to allow inertia to lull me into inaction. Suddenly, I have lost focus and months have passed without movement in any direction (except, perhaps, upward on my bathroom scales).

I have been contemplating different tactics, from purposely stepping outside my comfort zone in some way (um, do I really want to hang out at the biker bar by myself and see how that goes?) to setting up some kind of social experiment (eat for a week on the same amount of money a food stamp recipient receives) to see how resourceful and creative I can be as well as to understand how difficult it might be to live within externally-set limits. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of activities are not necessarily bad. However, for me right now these ideas are inauthentic. Contrived. Right now, I need grounded and authentic.

In Hymns to an Unknown God, Sam Keen says, “Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” In other words, expect invitations to enter into the lives of others, to engage with yourself and those around you in different ways. Invitations to journey in new directions and to try new things.

I believe these invitations (opportunities, clandestine messages) occur in each of our lives on a daily basis. But I also know I am often so caught up in my own scripts, my own daily agendas, that I easily miss them. I don’t realize something important or meaningful has just been offered. What if I had accepted the invitation to rake with that woman? At the very least, I would have taken a little time out of my day to help a neighbor. At the very most…well, who can say what might have been created in that space?! Either way, I would have been richer for it.

Sometimes, these invitations lead to life-changing encounters. The kind of encounters (with others or with ourselves) that give us pause, offer us insight, allow us to connect the dots from where we are to where we want/need to go. As Gregg Levoy says in Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “In whatever form these signal events come to us, they seem to indicate…a way in which events on the outside and the inside work together and match each other. The event and our state of mind become like the two eyepieces of a binocular microscope, they are both looking at the same subject, the same truth.” When this happens, the invitation extended to us is, in fact, a call to become our most authentic selves.

I am grateful for the reminder that I need to be on the lookout for these invitations, these messages intended for me personally. Though they might show up at odd or unexpected moments, it is vital to keep the following in mind : once I’ve received the invitation, the whole point is to accept it. To show up at the party (or conversation, lecture, volunteer site, relationship) – without attachment to preconceived outcomes – and see what there is to learn or to give.

Passages: What Women Mean

Today, I will be attending the memorial service for a former student, Katie Beckett, who passed away suddenly on Friday. Katie touched my life and the lives of countless others through her tenacity, honesty, and willingness to fight for what was right. Please take a look at this piece from NPR, one of many tributes to Katie posted in the past week. I’m happy the piece mentions Katie spending time at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop, as this is where I’ve visited with her in the years since she graduated. In fact, we spoke there just two weeks ago.

Later in the weekend came a facebook post from my friend Sheila. Sheila told us that her mother, Ruth, has decided to enter hospice care. I had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with Ruth last summer, when Sheila and I reunited with Mary, another high school friend, at Ruth’s apartment. Sheila and Mary brought their guitars so we could do what we did in high school – play and sing John Denver songs. Ruth requested the first song, “Forest Lawn” – a humorous song about an imagined funeral. She said it was funnier to her now than it was thirty years ago. Later in the fall, Ruth sent me a lovely letter in which her honest and opinionated voice rang in every word. When Sheila posted that Ruth was entering hospice, she said Ruth had declared that “its time to kick the bucket”, a direct quote from a very direct lady!

Ruth, enjoying the John Denver sing-along last July

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about these two very different women this week. Different, yet similar in that they have both been known and respected for speaking truthfully what was on their minds and in their hearts. Tonight, I had coffee at the Starbuck’s Cafe inside our local Barnes and Noble store, and their voices were very present to me.

As I left the store and started my car, the John Tesh radio show, “Intelligence for Your Life” came on the radio. I was caught up in my thoughts, but suddenly keyed in on what John Tesh was saying – it was a list of “When She Says…What She Means Is…” Two items I remember from the list:

“When she says, ‘Are you hungry?’, what she’s really saying is ‘I’m starving’.”
“When she says, ‘We can do whatever you want tonight’, what she’s really saying is, ‘Please, let’s do what I want.’ ” (click here if you want to see other examples from a similar segment on the radio show)

 I’ve heard, and disregarded, such lists before. But tonight, I have to say it pissed me off. And frankly, I think we should all be angry about this crap. Whether the message of these lists – that women don’t say what they mean or mean what they say – is true or false is secondary to the fact that it should make us angry. If true, it suggests that women are both socialized to and feel prevailed upon to lie, dissemble, prevaricate…anything but say what we really feel. If false, it suggests that there is something in our culture which wishes to belittle women’s reasoning and communication skills, to reduce our voices to a series of stock (and stale) jokes.

So I looked into my own soul, and saw that there have been times when I’ve said the opposite of what I feel. Times when I’ve said I was fine, but wasn’t. Times when I’ve told someone I’m not offended, but I am. Times when I’ve said “Sure, it’s perfectly ok by me”, when it SO wasn’t. And as I thought of these examples, I got pissed at myself. For buying into the lies I was taught (in part by drivel like the list above) about what it means to be a woman. For believing, in those moments, that I didn’t have a right to feel what I felt. That if I said what I felt, others wouldn’t love me anymore.

Women, like Ruth and Katie, whose voices have been clear and present in their lives and in our world have a lot to teach the rest of us. First and foremost, that we don’t have to be anyone other than our honest selves to be loved. So let’s honor these women by working on this whole concept of saying what we mean and meaning what we say, in the full expectation that our world can change and our relationships deepen as a result. Luckily, we have some great role models to emulate!

Drinking The Kool-Aid

The day of my Nana’s funeral was the first time I saw my father cry. It was a shock to me, which is probably why I remember it so vividly. That, and the incident with the kool-aid.

After the funeral, relatives and friends gathered at our house. For us kids, it was like the best party ever – my dad’s sister Rosie’s nine kids were there, five or six of us (can’t remember which siblings had been born by then) and other assorted cousins and kids. We were playing outside, running around sweaty and thirsty and begging for something to drink. So my dad made a pitcher of kool-aid. But as we stood in a line on the back porch ten or so kids realized at the same moment that something was terribly wrong. The kool-aid was beyond tart. Dad had forgotten to add sugar. I remember suggesting we should just go ahead and drink it, rather than bother my Dad with our complaint. That idea was vetoed by the other kids. But I couldn’t get the image of my father’s grief out of my head. It seemed like the most thoughtful thing I could do was drink that terrible, sugarless, beverage.

In November of 1978, when I was 17, Jim Jones and members of his People’s Church committed mass suicide in Guyana by drinking poisoned kool-aid. This is the origin of the phrase, “drinking the kool-aid”, generally meaning blind, uncritical faith in a leader. I am not using the phrase in this sense, though perhaps my use is a distant relative. Instead, I am talking about those times in life when what is before us is a decision to either do or not do a bitter, unsweetened thing. Sometimes, like on the day of my Nana’s funeral, we want to be kind and thoughtful, but there will be no true benefit for anyone if we drink (though there may be real cost involved). At other times, we do the hard or bitter task because the benefit to others outweighs the cost to us. Learning to differentiate between these two types of occasions is an art form.

How do you know, when circumstances are murky or clouded by emotion, whether or not to drink the cup set before you? How much effort do you put forth for others in your life? How many contortions do you make in your day to do what you think someone else wants or needs? These are difficult, sometimes gut-wrenching questions.

I’ve developed a few guidelines that are, I think, serving me pretty well.  They were developed after years in which I often found myself bitter because I was making the effort to drink the kool-aid, yet it was going unnoticed and/or unappreciated by the person for whom my effort was expended.

  • First, I have to ask myself: Do I have a hidden agenda? Do I want to do this as an expression of my care for the other, or is it an attempt to “make” another person love me, appreciate me, beholden to me? Believe me when I say this is one of the hardest questions I regularly ask myself. It is hard because I want to lie to myself. I want to say, every time, that I am only thinking of someone else’s happiness. I want bluebirds to fly out of my mouth because my soul is just that pure. However, if I am drinking from the bitter cup because of a hidden agenda, the bitterness becomes palpable in my reactions to the other person. Ever hear of a martry complex? I am susceptible to this failing, and I truly hate seeing it in myself – so much so that I’d rather be honest with myself about my agenda!
  • Another important question: Will my doing this be meaningful to the other person? I have been known to go to every store in town to get the exact gift I think will be perfect for someone. This is a process which gives me happiness, and whether the other person ever sees or knows the effort is incidental to my enjoyment. I am motivated by my love and the sheer joy of expressing it in this manner, and I can sense those lovely little bluebirds flitting around my altruistic head. There are times, however, when a desire to please becomes a crazed nightmare. One time a friend who rarely asks for help told me she was feeling overwhelmed and could use some help that would necessitate my availability for a Saturday. I was scheduled to work that Saturday, but didn’t want to say no in my friend’s hour of need. I rearranged my schedule, calling in favors and making deals with several other people in order to be free to help my friend. Saturday morning, just as I was donning my superhero cape, my friend called to say that she had changed her plans and didn’t need me after all. My ego was deflated, I was angry, and my feelings were hurt. Didn’t she realize the effort it took to come to her rescue?! But the failure was mine – I hadn’t been honest (“Oh, no, I’m free on Saturday”), I hadn’t been direct (“I am scheduled to work, but if this is really important to you, I’ll make some calls and switch things around”) and I hadn’t asked myself whether I had a hidden agenda (SuperJenion to the rescue!).
  • A final question that I’ve learned to ask is: Does this really matter to ME, or am I doing it because I think I SHOULD? If the answer is that it matters to me, great. I do it. If the answer is “because I should”, I need to dig a little deeper. So the next question needs to be: Why should II am not one of those people who advocate never doing things because we think we should. There are times we SHOULD suck it up and do things, whether or not we want to or they are meaningful to us, because they matter to others to whom we are committed. If this is one of those moments, knowing it goes a long way in adjusting my attitude toward the positive. But sometimes I say “I should” when the reality is it doesn’t matter. That “should” is coming from a place of insecurity – I am afraid that someone else will be angry or not love me if I don’t say yes. So, I drink the stanky kool-aid from a place of fear. I’m the only one who thinks drinking it is a sign of love. Often, no one else really even notices what I agonized over. And then, we’re right back to that icky martyr complex.

The story of the kool-aid that wasn’t “cool” has become a legend in our family. Told and re-told with mirth over the years. For me, it is a reminder that sometimes our kinder impulses can lead us to make empty gestures. All of the adults, including my Dad, found humor in the reactions of their children to the sugarless kool-aid. I needn’t have worried so much about further burdening him in his grief, nor did I need to be the lone child choking down a glass of foul liquid. In my adult life, being clear with myself about my motives and the actual needs of my loved ones, instead of acting from misplaced obligation, insecurity, or hidden agendas has saved me from a great deal of bitterness and martyr-ing. Besides, I’m sure we can agree, a nice cold glass of sweet kool-aid with loved ones after shared effort is truly good for the soul – and what it was all about in the first place!

Recognizing the “Will to Meaning”

I hesitate to mention it here, but I haven’t felt really well for several weeks now. It’s nothing serious, just one of those things that leaves you feeling tired and weak. And after a while, tired and weak leads to depressed – not clinically, but definitely down. I hesitate to mention it because there are people reading this post who are dealing with lasting, serious or chronic health conditions and I feel like a heel for complaining.

The reason I decided to bring up my respiratory infection is not, however, to have a wider audience for my complaints. I started crying for no good reason during a meeting today. I have spent the past two evenings at home feeling cotton-headed, and emotionally isolated. And all of this is the result of a not particularly debilitating condition. What if I felt this way all the time? How would I cope with that? These questions have led me to think about my role in working with young people – especially those who struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation.

Some of you have heard me say that today’s students appear to have fewer coping skills and less resilience than the students I worked with when I entered my career twenty plus years ago. For some, this leads to an inability to take “normal” bumps in the road of life in stride (breakups, failed tests, etc.). For some, the life events they are attempting to take in are shockingly horrific. And this includes mental illness and personality disorders. A sobering truth: although college students commit suicide at a slightly lower rate than their age-mates who are not in school, suicide remains one of the leading causes of death among college students. This is a truth of which I am currently hyper-aware.

What can I do? My job is to do my utmost to keep them safe, to provide a safety net of concern, awareness and response when a student in crisis is brought to my attention. But what else am I to do as an adult who has successfully maneuvered through late adolescence and early adulthood? What are we all called to do to assist others who are struggling?

I try to stay away from making sweeping generalizations about our culture and how the “Jersey Shore” mentality is harming us all. But I do think the paucity of character and values in popular culture is detrimental to young people. And the influence of popular culture is multiplied by a vaccuum in their daily lives created by the disappearance of adults who are prepared to help them find meaning and purpose in life. Because we’re not talking with them about meaning and purpose. We’re talking with them about how to maximize their earning potential. We’re talking to them about filling their resume with activities that will help them stand out in a sluggish job market. They’re listening to their parents trying to figure out how to get above water financially, and they’re turning to vacuous tanned talking heads to escape their anxiety.

I’m not suggesting that we stop attempting to help our young people prepare for careers. I am suggesting, however, that we need to do a better job of recognizing the need for young people to feel that their activities, their work – their very lives – have meaning. That their lives have a purpose beyond that of basic survival and/or material comfort. And as sometimes happens when I am ruminating on such ideas, a perfect resource appears which can explain my jumbled thoughts better than I can. Yesterday, I saw the short film clip, below, over at The Better Man Project (a personal motivation blog I follow). I strongly encourage you to watch it – four minutes with the great Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning remains one of the most influential in my life. As always, Frankl speaks with eloquence and humor, and what he says is as true for today’s students as it was for the young people listening to his lecture in 1972. If we fail to recognize the “will to meaning” within an individual, we fail that individual. And the cost of that failure is very high – lives are, literally, at stake.