Into the Eyes of Strangers

•March 21, 2013 • Leave a Comment
Many artists have referred to the eyes as "The Windows to the Soul."  In them, a person's desire, energy, and true feelings can be discovered.  Some say that the eyes, "can never lie."

Many artists have referred to the eyes as “The Windows to the Soul.” In them, a person’s true desires, energy, and feelings can be discovered. Some say that the eyes, “can never lie.”

I’ve been working as a producer for 9 years now.

When it comes to conducting an interview, every producer finds their own technique or ritual over time.  I have come up with my own “style.” It’s something I’ve just developed along the way…a way that I’ve become reliant on like an invaluable tool.  My technique allows me to get someone comfortable in a hurry.  I can either shorten up or slow down my routine depending on the conditions around me, the subject matter being discussed, or the time my cameraman needs to get his shot adjusted right.  As technical adjustments are being made around us I explain to the interviewee to ignore the camera and the lights.  I explain that once we begin, they should only look at and talk to me.  If I do this right, it should feel like any other normal “conversation” they’ll have that day, or any other day.  I encourage them to be comfortable — to relax their shoulders and talk enthusiastically and expressively, to “use their hands,” if that’s what feels natural (it always is for me).  I tell them it’s important to me that they “be themselves,” that there are no right answers, that they already know everything we need to talk about…that they just need to trust themselves, and I ask them to trust me.  I remind them that I’m listening to them, so they don’t have to worry about listening to themselves.  In those moments before an interview begins you have very little time to get someone at ease.  After years of doing this I’ve come to recognize that the best interviews come from people who don’t think and just talk, and those that struggle the most are paradoxically the people that “prepare” their answers ahead of time.  The best interviews happen when people just let their answers….flow.

When the interview starts — I ask my first question, often trying to lead them with it where I’d like them to go. And as they begin to talk, I silently listen, nodding often to let them know I’m there with them.  My most important rule, always try to maintain eye contact.  I remind myself not to look down at my notes and the next question I want to ask, I tell myself, “don’t break eye contact.”  Over time, I’ve found that the more focused I am on them and what they have to say, the less they remember what is going around them.  Usually by the second or third question, something remarkable happens — their body language completely changes.  The tension falls from their shoulders, the shakiness drifts from their voice, their eyes settle and they blink less and less.  Their guard is let down, and a connection is created.

Usually, after twenty to thirty minutes I know we have what we need for the story.   I thank them, we collect the mic, we shake hands — and they walk away.  Sometimes I see them again.  Most of the time, I don’t.  This is the routine — and like any other, at first it’s nuanced and unique, and after awhile it becomes … well, natural.

It’s become very easy for me to walk into any environment, meet the person or people I’ll be talking to and get to work.  Too easy.  My routine has become so engrained and natural that it’s all too easy to lose perspective on what the act actually means…

I think now about all the places I’ve been, at least twenty states in our country.  I’ve conducted interviews in countless NYC highrises, an LA arena, a Caribbean beach, a famous Oklahoma bar, countless schools, hospitals, and churches.  And all of the people I’ve talked to — their ages, professions, ethnicities, and social situations so vast and varied.  I’ve interviewed CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies and the founders of start-ups to volunteers leading life-saving charities.  I’ve talked to police officers from small towns about difficult cases that still eat away at them, I’ve listened to doctors talking about the cures they’re researching, restaurant owners struggling in a tough economy, and firefighters who’d lost a dear friend.  I’ve talked to teachers, convenience store employees, entrepreneurs, engineers, architects, students, athletes and even an Oscar-winning Hollywood star.  I’ve talked to each of them about their work — whether it was building someone else’s house, or re-building their own.  I’ve learned that fighting a fire, teaching classical music, and preventing a heart attack are each an art form of their own.

So many names, so many faces it’s impossible to remember them all.  So many eyes I’ve looked into…and so many stories that’ve been shared with me.  Hundreds and hundreds of them…maybe more.  Most of them you forget over time, but some stick with you and never leave you.  Sometimes the stories a stranger shares with you help you learn an invaluable lesson about how you should live your own life.

As I grow older I become more convinced that no one knows how to live life better, than a child.  The children I’ve interviewed have solidified this conviction.  Most of the children I’ve spoken with aren’t “normal” kids.  That’s why I’ve been asked to speak with them.  Usually they’re dealing with an adversity so great, that the average adult would crumble if they had to face it.  Look into the eyes of a child who has spent time in a homeless shelter, or listen to a little girl who has just battled and beaten cancer — and you discover what true courage is…you redefine “character.”

Character is an indifference to adversity, a fortitude that allows one to not look past it, but through it — without any fear.  You grow up thinking that this kind of character comes with age and wisdom.  But these kids have taught me that the opposite is true — that innocence may actually be wisdom.

The interviews that have impacted me the greatest are the ones shared by children who have faced great adversity in their lives.

The interviews that have impacted me the deepest are the ones shared by children who have faced great adversity in their lives.

I remember many of Joseph Campbell’s passages from “The Power of Myth,” but one stands out right now.  He talks about the experience of stopping your forward thinking for a moment.  About stopping, looking back, and reflecting.  He said that if you look closely and carefully enough, you’ll notice something remarkable.  A thread appears to you, a current that has run through your life since the beginning — a narrative like the one you’d read in any great story.  Your life has a certain path that seems chaotic and uncertain in the present, but appears natural, charted, and destined when you look back at where you’ve been. It’s as if the story of your entire life has already been written and you’re the last one to peel back the pages.

I have to remind myself to do this sometimes, especially when life is at it’s most hectic.  As I do it tonight, and reflect on the individuals I’ve met, the questions I’ve asked, and the stories that have been shared I realize how these experiences have affected and shaped who I am.  I’m grateful for them, and humbled by the opportunity to listen to and later to share each story.

Years from now, when I look back at my own life, I think I’ll see in it the same thing I’ve somehow known since I was a child. Sharing stories is why I’m here.  I picked it, and it picked me.  Whether they’re about real lives or imagined, those stories — no matter how disparate and diverse, I’ll see that they somehow all came together to help me write my own.

There are some people that believe that no one on this Earth is a “stranger.”  They believe that we deeply know, and are connected to every person we cross paths with — we just don’t allow ourselves to be open to it.  It’s a radically different way of looking at life for sure, but after all these eyes I’ve looked into, I’d have to say that I agree.

Stand Up Scout

•March 11, 2013 • Leave a Comment
After the trial for Tom Robinson's life, attorney Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom in defeat.

After the trial for Tom Robinson’s life, attorney Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom in defeat.

It’s a hot summer night in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It’s 1933, right in the heart of the Great Depression.  People are desperate, poor, and tense.  Everyone in this town has been following a major trial — the one for Tom Robinson’s life.

Tom Robinson is African-American, despised for the alleged rape of a young Maycomb woman by his predominantly white peers.  They’ve already organized a mob, and would’ve taken his life by their own hands if not for the man standing between their fervent vengeance and the accused.

His name is Atticus Finch.  A pensive, intellectual and virtuous attorney…a widower struggling to raise his two children and defend a man that he knows doesn’t have a chance. On that night in the summer of 1933, Atticus and Tom will lose their fight.  And after the crowd of spectators leave this old courtroom, Atticus Finch is left alone to pack his belongings away into his briefcase.

But he’s not alone.  Watching above from a crowded balcony are his supporters — the forgotten community of Maycomb, and his children…his son Jem and daughter Jean Louise, a tomboy known to everyone as “Scout.”  To these people, this defeated man didn’t fail tonight…to them – he is a hero.

As he shuffles out of the courtroom, they rise in silent, stoic unison.  All but Atticus’ daughter.  It’s at this moment that a Reverend nearby softly demands…

“Stand up Scout.  Your father’s passing.”

Scout obeys — standing with the others, as Atticus exits the courtroom.

It’s always been one of my favorite scenes, in a movie that is powerful and poignant…a story that is timeless and rich with important lessons.  The bond between Atticus and his two  young children is the current that runs through this story, as they come-of-age in the most challenging of times.

Atticus and his daughter Jean Louise (aka "Scout")

Atticus and his daughter Jean Louise (aka “Scout”)

Early on in the story, Atticus tries to teach his daughter Scout a lesson in empathy.  He explains to her…

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch is one of the greatest heroes in American fiction.  Gregory Peck’s portrayal of this character in the film not only won him an Oscar, but his character was named the # 1 Film Hero of all-time by the American Film Institute.  His embodiment of courage, quiet strength, humility, compassion, and above all – empathy makes this character and this story an unparalleled teaching tool for not just children, but for all of us.  There’s a lot we can learn from Atticus Finch…a lot we can learn about empathy.

When no one else could see it, Atticus struggled with his decisions and the tremendous pressure he was under.

When no one else could see him, Atticus struggled with his decisions and the tremendous pressure he was under.

There’s a certain paradox we struggle with while living life.  Outwardly, we see ourselves as separate, alone, and in constant competition with the world around us.  We force ourselves to toughen up, thicken our skin, defend ourselves if needed by fighting anyone or anything that seems to threaten us.  But all this attitude does is deepen the separation we feel.

So while we see the world this way, within we wish for it to be the opposite.  We strive to feel connected, understood…and loved.  This is why we seek out stories like To Kill a Mockingbird, why we strive to find archetypal heroes like Atticus Finch – because they feed our inner and better self.

Atticus’ solution to any challenge his children face is empathy.  When they get into fights at school, he forbids the violence and instead encourages them to see things from their antagonizer’s point-of-view.  When his son can’t understand why Tom Robinson’s accuser confronted and spit at Atticus after the trial, Atticus talks to him about tolerance and inner strength, not retaliation.  He teaches his son how to rise above the hate, not become swallowed by it.

All violence, all anger, all hate comes not from competition or a need for survival but from a place of fear.  This exists all around us, and if you think about it, is easily apparent…but just as easily forgotten. It takes the greatest strength to remember this, and the deepest courage.  That’s the road to empathy.

Empathy fosters connection, makes us feel deep inner peace and bliss, it’s the gateway to happiness, compassion, and love.  Maybe Atticus knew this better than most and maybe that’s why we wished it for his children…because there was no greater gift he could give them in life than the art of seeing the world from someone else’s point-of-view.

Following Bliss: 2012 Annual Report

•January 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,700 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

2012’s “Helpers”

•December 31, 2012 • 1 Comment

Last night I put up a post about the greatest challenges we faced in 2012.  From escalating conflict in the Middle East, to quarreling politicians, to climate change and finally to this year’s horrible mass shootings, our world faced (and continues to face) unbelievable tragedy, sadness, and adversity.

But while it’s easy, and somewhat natural to focus on all of the negative I think it’s important to remember all of the good growing in this world, much of it blossoming this year and in the face of 2012’s greatest tragedies.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, many news programs invited expert child psychologists onto their broadcasts to address the issue parents throughout the country were now facing…”How do we talk to our kids about what happened at Sandy Hook?”  A few of them referenced a method that came from the philosophy of a man who I spent hours watching and learning from as a child…Mr. Rogers.

In times of conflict and tragedy, Fred Rogers remembers the wisdom of his mother, who told him…

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003) was an American educator that hosted the PBS children's show "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood"

Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003) was an American educator that hosted the PBS children’s show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”

On the last day of this year I want to dedicate my time and energy to those I believe are 2012’s most inspiring “Helpers.”  A few of these people I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with.  Their courage and commitment to making the world better had a profound and lasting impact on me this year.  The others are stories that stood out for me – the inspired acts of ordinary people who faced great adversity and sometimes grave danger.  They’re people I’ve never met, and probably never will.  But whether I read about them or saw their story on TV, they proved to me that no matter the tragedy or adversity the world will always be full of people that care.

ANTHONY STAREGO

One of my favorite things to do every fall is watch ESPN’s College Gameday on Saturday mornings while I enjoy my coffee.  On one Saturday morning in November they aired a story about a teenage boy named Anthony Starego.  Starego has faced adversity his entire life.  Like millions of other children in America, Anthony’s best friend is the strict schedule and routine he relies on to navigate his way through each day.  At a very young age, Anthony was diagnosed with Autism.

Anyone that knows anything about this disorder understands how difficult it makes social interaction.  For someone that has Autism, “fitting in,” is a major struggle, and many autistic children who attend public schools become targets for social alienation and relentless bullying.  Like many children with Autism, Anthony can easily become obsessed with the things that really interest him.  For Anthony, one of these interests became football – specifically Rutgers Football.

In 2006, for arguably the biggest game in Rutgers history, a then 12-year-old Starego was in the stadium with his Father.  That night he witnessed the game winning kick by Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito, followed by thousands of fans flooding the field — celebrating the great victory.  This event would shape a young boy’s dream.  He later told his father, “Dad, I want to be a kicker.”  Anthony’s father knew how difficult this would be for him.  A child with Autism like Anthony has severe difficulty with any interaction, never mind getting hit or tackled.  But Anthony’s Dad didn’t dispel his son’s dream, he fueled it.

A few years later, Anthony — against all odds — won the starting kicker position at his High School.  This past October, with only seconds left against his school’s greatest rival, Anthony lined up to kick a field goal that would break a tie-game.  In the biggest moment of this young boy’s life he would drill the kick through the uprights; sealing a huge victory for his team.  His teammates surrounded and celebrated him, fans flooded the field.  That night, Anthony Starego was everybody’s hero.

Teenager Anthony Starego, diagnosed with Autism when he was very young, has dreamed of kicking a game-winning field goal since he was 12 years old.

Teenager Anthony Starego, diagnosed with Autism when he was very young, has dreamed of kicking a game-winning field goal since he was 12 years old.

It’s difficult to understand what goes on in the mind of a child with Autism.  But Anthony Starego proved that all children, no matter what challenges they face, can dream big…and sometimes those dreams really do come true.  Next time you think the odds are all against you and you can’t endure, remember that a boy that probably faced much greater adversity stared it in the face and literally kicked it down.

ASHLEY CRAIG

I had the honor of meeting one of the Anti-Bullying Movement’s most dedicated and inspiring leaders this past September.  A victim of bullying when she was 12, Ashley would later save the life of one of her classmates who confessed to her that he was considering suicide as his only way out. Saving this boy’s life showed Ashley that she was capable of great change.  It inspired her to create her own anti-bullying non-profit organization called Students Against Being Bullied.  Her mission to prevent bullying in her own school led her to be an anti-bullying advocate for other schools and organizations.  To date, Ashley has spoken at well over 60 schools, teaching students and educators alike about what they can do to fight back against the greatest threat her generation faces.  Ashley’s work has also brought her to National Conferences where she has appeared as a guest speaker.

16-year-old Ashley Craig is the founder of "Students Against Being Bullied," a student-led bullying prevention organization.

16-year-old Ashley Craig is the founder of “Students Against Being Bullied,” a student-led bullying prevention organization.

Connected by a mutual friend, Ashley’s world-changing work was already several years in the making by the time we met with her at her High School in Sussex, NJ.  That’s right — Ashley is only 16 years old.

While other kids her age are worried more about their social status, sports performances, or academic scores — Ashley spends her days not only worrying about the safety and well-being of others, but advocating on their behalf for change.  For a kid that’s severely bullied in today’s world, it feels like no one understands or cares, it feels like you’re all alone and up against the world.  Ashley has selflessly taken on the role as these victims’ advocate, their protector, their friend.

Ashley believes we can live in a nation without bullying someday.  She dreams of being in Washington and working side-by-side with others to implement a National Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.  While others look at this issue, shake their heads, and say, “what a shame,” Ashley is leading a charge for change.  Her dream is helping others feel safe and empowered enough to follow theirs.  Her work allows all of us to imagine a safer, more harmonious world…a better world.

26 ACTS OF KINDNESS

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, millions of Americans felt the need to act, asking of themselves “what can I do?”  NBC journalist Ann Curry answered this question with an inspired solution.  Using social media as her ally, she asked each of us to commit to 26 random acts of kindness.  Each act would honor the memory of one of Sandy Hook’s victims.  On Twiter, if you type in #26 you’ll be transported to an unending list of significant acts of kindness taking place all over the world and in the memory of those that lost their lives on that terrible day.

26 Acts of Kindness was created by NBC's Ann Curry as a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

26 Acts of Kindness was created by NBC’s Ann Curry as a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. http://www.twitter.com/26acts or #26Acts

To each and every person that has “Committed to 26,” and will continue to in the New Year…you are one of the Helpers.  Hopefully the 27th random act of kindness you commit isn’t a result of tragedy.  How wonderful would our world be if we focused more on acts like these…on the random and average good happening every day?  We’ll never know until we try.

A LITTLE GIRL NAMED BETHANY

I was fortunate enough to do some work for a charity doing some very important work in the world this past year.  Family Reach Foundation provides not only heartfelt support to families whose children are fighting pediatric cancer, but this organization often helps them get through crippling financial challenges wrought by the disease.

In March, I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful New Jersey family.  In their home, I interviewed a 9-year old girl named Bethany.  When we met, Bethany was thankfully coming out on the other side of leukemia in remission.  After hearing about her struggles from her parents I asked Bethany about how she battled her way through cancer.  According to Bethany she put her faith in God, believing that if she was good that he, “would always keep her.”  I asked Bethany about her big dreams.  She imagines a big family of her own someday, with a loving husband and beautiful children.  Not only does she see herself caring for her own family, but others as well.  This cancer has shown Bethany not only the depths of her own inner-strength, but the power that helping others can have.  Bethany plans to be a nurse one day, so she can help heal other people like the nurses that looked after her.

A few months later, I was standing beside Bethany and her family when she had maybe the biggest thrill of her young life.  In that moment, Matt Damon squatted down to her level, and with a big smile asked her what her name was.  After she answered, he said, “It’s nice to meet you Bethany, ya know I have a daughter that’s about your age too.”  For a kid that already glows, she was beaming.  For anybody that doesn’t believe that good things happen to good people — I wish you were standing beside me that evening, because seeing this would’ve proved you dead wrong.

I’m still amazed by how much I learned from a courageous 9 year old girl. If she can face cancer, overcome it, and see the world with the same optimism, wonder, and beauty that she does…then what excuse do you or I have to see it any different?

IN THE AFTERMATH OF SANDY

I don’t think anybody that lives in the NY metropolitan area will ever forget Hurricane Sandy.  The intense images of devastation are burned into our memories forever — and for those that lost their homes or even more tragically their loved ones — nothing will ever give them the solace and peace needed to truly “move on.”  But for all of us that were pure witnesses to that week — I hope we’ll always remember “The Helpers.”

There are so many that hopefully someday a book is written just about them.  But for now, all I can do is write about the people and stories that I remember the best from that harrowing aftermath.

At NYU’s Langone Medical Center, the power outage and subsequent failure of their generators the night of the storm brought Nurses, Doctors, and Emergency Personnel a tremendous challenge.  Using mere flashlights to light their way, these helpers carried patients down as many as 15 flights of narrow stairs — one by one — to ambulances waiting below.  Many of these patients in fragile, life-threatening condition — including newborn babies being kept alive only by respirators.  These children were carried down the stairs, one at a time, by a paramedic while a nurse manually pumped air into their tiny lungs.  As far as I know, all of these babies are alive today, and all of them will celebrate their first birthday in 2013.

In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy medical professionals at NYU Langone Medical Center evacuated patients to safety -- including newborn babies.

In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy medical professionals at NYU Langone Medical Center evacuated patients to safety — including newborn babies.

In my hometown of Hoboken people living on the first floor up and down my block guided power strips out their windows and offered fresh coffee and food every morning to town residents who were without power for days.  There was nothing more moving those first few days after the storm, than seeing someone plug in a dead cell phone, call their family and tell them, “Don’t worry, I’m okay.”

First Responders and Energy Professionals worked non-stop for days and even weeks after the storm hit — restoring power to homes and businesses, coordinating traffic, putting out fires, repairing downed power lines, and the heavy presence of so many police officers in every town made all of us feel as if maybe we’d be “safe,” and okay after all.  Energy professionals and construction professionals came from states all over the country, down from Canada, and from overseas to lend their time, knowledge, expertise, and energy to the rebuilding effort.  Many of them are still working on putting our home back together to this day.

Being a first responder or energy professional doesn’t mean that your home is the first one to get, trees cleared, water removed, or power back.  Just like the rest of us, their homes suffered damage, their families slept in the cold and waited on long gas lines.  But every day that got back up and out, working to restore the basic “needs” of our world.  Not only did Sandy remind us that we take complex systems like electricity, water, and waste removal for granted…but that we take the hard workers that maintain these systems and ensure our safety for granted as well.

To all of the first responders and energy professionals that worked to bring life back to normal and who continue to do so — thank you for being the Helpers not just in the days after the storm…but every day.

SANDY HOOK’S SHEPHERDS

No tragedy this year was more devastating than the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  But even as we untangled the details of that morning’s horror, there are many stories of incredible heroism that came to the surface.

During his speech at the Newtown Memorial Service on a solemn Sunday night, President Obama spoke to us not as a leader or politician, but as a Father.  He simultaneously reminded himself and all of us of the shared responsibility we all have in raising America’s children.  We all set an example for them to follow, we all help them learn valuable life lessons, we show them how to grow and face all of life’s adversity with compassion and integrity.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

On that tragic morning, there are stories of many teachers and aides that risked their own lives to keep other people’s children safe from harm.  There are teachers that hid children in closets and darkened rooms, that kept their composure under the most dire of circumstances.  For hours, some of these teachers watched over these children in quiet darkness, instructing them to draw happy pictures and “show me your best smile.”

The elementary school’s dedicated principal Dawn Hochsprung believed in the hopes and dreams of every child in her school.  She knew that the work that she and her staff do on a daily basis is the most important work anyone can do in the world, but she didn’t look for credit or approval from others.  She is remembered by many parents and faculty members as always “positive,” and someone that made parents sending their little boy or little girl off to school for the very first time feel like she deeply cared about their child, and would do everything she could to keep the safe and help them grow.  She had advocated for a state-of-the-art security system and made sure faculty and students strictly adhered to the school’s Lockdown procedures.  And even when all of these precautions broke down around her, Hochsprung put herself between the shooter and the children under her protection.  She led by example, and there were other teachers that day that put themselves between the shooter and innocent children.  If not for the heroism of Hochsprung and other teachers that morning we may be remembering 40 or 50 victims today…not 20.

*             *            *

On the surface, it may look like the stories of all of these helpers are vast and disparate.  But not for me.  To me, these helpers have a common, and unmistakeable bond.  They all remind us that no matter how alone we feel, how great the adversity we face seems, that we are ALL connected to so many other lives.  Some are our family, some our friends, but many others are strangers that we intersect with every day on our crazy journey through this thing we all call life.  When we’re not so absorbed by our own plights or problems, when we’re listening to the world around us, and when we’re really trying to find the good out there — they are there.

2012’s Helpers have shown us how to live life to its fullest, how to remain strong in the face of personal adversity and grave, certain danger.  They embody integrity, empathy, and show us what true character really is.  I remember them as I look back at 2012 and the lessons they all taught me.  They remind me that no matter what happens in 2013, to always look around and find “The Helpers,”  and then to find a way to become one for someone else.

Remembering 2012

•December 31, 2012 • 1 Comment

It was supposed to be the year the world ended…

…or at least “changed.”

SAME OLD POLITICS:

With one day left in this year, the way we view these 365 days now is probably very different from the way history will see them.  Right now though, on the surface, it doesn’t look like much changed this year from the last few years past.  Anyone I’ve talked to about this year has the same response…”it went fast.”  2012 did seem to be a draining year, at times exhausting.  This year provided America with a seemingly unending Presidential election — what many called the “ugliest” and “nastiest” in our nation’s history.  And while both candidates talked about dynamic change and progress, they neglected to tell us how they would lead others we’ve elected to work together to solve our collective problems.

The 2012 Election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was called the "ugliest" and "nastiest" in our country's history.

The 2012 Election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was called the “ugliest” and “nastiest” in our country’s history.


The remainder of this year since Election Day has showed us more of the same…mounting anxiousness over incessant conflict in the Middle East and grave fear and tremendous uncertainty over our collective financial future.  Facing tremendous adversity and challenge, our “leaders” seem to still be more worried about political maneuvering than problem-solving.  In a year where we were promised hope, change, and reform we’ve only received more of the same rhetoric and stagnancy.

THE “SUPERSTORM:”

Satellite image of Superstorm Sandy as it approaches the Northeastern US.

Satellite image of Superstorm Sandy as it approaches the Northeastern US.

It’ll be impossible to look back on 2012 without discussing the violent weather.  America itself was besieged by quickly-changing climate and dramatic storm systems.  Throughout the country this year, average temperatures rose to the highest they’ve been in history in many places.  The midwest experienced one of their worst tornado seasons and many areas of the Northeast were literally transformed by “Superstorm Sandy.”  Sandy didn’t take the track of hurricanes past, riding the coastline and gradually losing energy and force.  Instead, the storm gathered strength over the ocean before spinning into the Northeast at full force.  Combined with a late October Northern cold front and tidal forces created by a Full Moon the storm smacked the coastlines of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with storm surges ranging from 10 to almost 20 feet high.  In the immediate aftermath of the storm, those with power were witnesses to images of unprecedented damage.  Houses removed from their foundations and obliterated by ocean waves.  America’s greatest metropolitan area — New York City saw one third of Manhattan under water in the immediate aftermath of the storm.  Major tunnels and bridges shut down, and blocks upon blocks without power for days.  New York City Burroughs fell victim to even greater devastation.   Areas of Staten Island and Queens (particularly Breezy Point) featured horrendous flooding and widespread damage.  For many of the people that lived in these neighborhoods — the word “home” will never feel the same, ever again.

A couple looks at the devastation to their neighborhood after a fire caused by Sandy destroyed 80 homes.

A couple looks at the devastation to their neighborhood after a fire caused by Sandy destroyed 80 homes.

I’m writing this post from my home in Hoboken, NJ.  This town, an adopted burrough of The Big Apple is an island roughly a mile long and home to 50,000 people.  Hoboken was one of the hardest hit areas during Sandy.  I’ve lived in New Jersey all of my life.  Like many kids that’ve grown up here, most of my childhood is filled with memories of time spent with friends and family down at The Jersey Shore.  Thanks to Sandy, these beaches and boardwalk communities are now unrecognizable.  It’s not just buildings that were ripped from their roots and pulled out to sea — it’s a collection of memories so many of us made as children playing on those beaches, laughing on those boardwalk rides.  Now those memories exist only in our imagination.  Much of New Jersey was turned into something resembling a demilitarized zone in the wake of the storm.  Miles and miles of communities without electricity, downed power lines and uprooted trees, blocked roads, closed bridges, and gas lines miles long weren’t the exception.  For one week in 2012 — this was normal life.

The boardwalk/amusement park in Seaside Heights, NJ after Superstorm Sandy.

The boardwalk/amusement park in Seaside Heights, NJ after Superstorm Sandy.

As a state, and as a country, we continue to rebuild after this historic storm.  But how?  Many scientists point to this storm as proof that Global Climate Change DOES EXIST.  With rising sea levels and aggressively erratic temperatures shifts how do we plan for an uncertain future?

THE YEAR OF THE GUN

When the history books write about 2012 decades from now they may see it as a turning point, or maybe the early days of a new era in our nation’s violence.  2012 was our nation’s worst ever  in terms of mass shootings.  151 Americans died this year in 10 mass shootings, while countless others were injured.

Georgia Health Spa Shooting – Norcross, Georgia – February 21st, 2012

Chardon High School Shooting – Cleveland, Ohio – February 27th, 2012

Oikos University Shooting – Oakland, California – April 2nd, 2012

Seattle Cafe Shooting  – Seattle, Washington – May 30th, 2012

Aurora Movie Theater Shooting – Aurora, Colorado – July 20th, 2012

Sikh Temple Shooting – Oak Creek, Wisconsin – August 5th, 2012

Minnesota Workplace Shooting – Minneapolis, Minnesota – September 27th, 2012

Brookfield Spa Shooting – Milwaukee, Wisconsin – October 21st, 2012

Clackamas Town Center Shooting – Portland, Oregon – December 11th, 2012

Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting – Newtown, Connecticut – December 14th, 2012

While each of these tragedies grabbed our attention this year, two in particular were the most haunting.  The first happened in a affluent suburb of Denver, Colorado known as Aurora.  Just before midnight in a movie theater, a single shooter entered the premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  He opened fire on the crowd, killing 12 and injuring 58 others.  No clear-cut motive for this destruction, and in the days after the tragedy we found ourselves asking the same question from coast to coast — “Why?”

A massive candlelight vigil was held for victims of the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting.

A massive candlelight vigil was held for victims of the Aurora Movie Theater Shooting.

Almost 6 months later, the unthinkable happened again.  This time though, the tragedy and impact was worse.  At an Elementary School in a quiet New England town, a lone shooter entered and opened fire on the faculty and children inside before taking his own life.  26 people dead, most horrible of all — 20 young children, between the ages of 5 – 7.  All throughout our country that afternoon and evening, there are stories of mothers and fathers rushing home, hugging their children, and not wanting to let go.  And in the days that followed, we all felt as though a member of our family had been taken too —  hearing the stories of these innocent, vibrant lives with so much life still left to live — and the teachers, counselor and principal who gave their own lives, defending them.

Immediately, the media turned both tragedies into a rallying cry for “gun control.”  Other agencies or groups blasted our Mental Health departments at the state and federal level, while others blamed violent video games and movies.  As in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Columbine or Virginia Tech shootings the finger-pointing has always been the same.  And what we often find is that these political arguments immediately become polarizing and debilitating — seemingly distracting us from the issue at hand until its swept away by the next major news story.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT was invaded by a gunman on December 14th, 2012.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”  What is it within the American psyche that is so drawn to and fascinated by violence?  In my opinion, any chance we have of preventing future tragedies starts not with eliminating weapons or better mental health check-ups.  These are appendages that distract us from attacking the greater issue.  We must go much deeper than the surface to solve the problem, and we all have to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror.  Our media is our natural mirror.  Through movies, music, and television our lives are reflected through art.  Through the news, our lives are unveiled to us as “fact.”  From our living room, the news shapes our view of the outside world — all of its potential for greatness, despair, and destruction.  In 2012 America, our media is failing us.  The majority have chosen style over substance and sensationalism over truth.  All too often, they reflect a world back to us where murder and mayhem bring immediate attention.  In the mind’s eye of a mentally disturbed person, attention and fame are one in the same.

I remember one of the most poignant moments from CNN’s coverage during the Aurora Shootings, when a father of one of the victims shakily came up in front of the camera to speak to Anderson Cooper.  Live, on the air, he pleaded with Cooper and other broadcasters to completely refrain from televising the shooter’s name, image, and story.  He knew what we’re all afraid to admit, that our attention only feeds the next one of these tragedies.  During his coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, Cooper kept his promise — never identifying the shooter by name or image during his broadcast.

Candles penned with the names of Sandy Hook victims are lined up at a vigil after the shooting.

Candles penned with the names of Sandy Hook victims are lined up at a vigil after the shooting.

For me personally, the Sandy Hook shooting felt debilitating…and I don’t think I was alone.  The overall weight of the tragedy and then the heart-wrenching personal stories shared by parents, grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and siblings about the children their families had just lost was so deeply saddening it felt like it settled deep in my bones and hasn’t left to this very day.  I’ve always believed that children, not adults, are the ones with real courage.  Before they know any better — they demand action and laughter, they give their love freely and openly, without any fear of the repercussions.  As I heard the individual stories of these 20 children I thought deeply about the places they had called home…about their families.  I thought about those 20 Christmases.  When you’re a child, nothing is more magical than Christmas morning…then jumping out of bed and rushing down those stairs in your pajamas…about seeing what Santa brought you this year, and then finally tearing open those presents.  In those 20 homes this year, those beds were neat and made, those steps were eerily silent, and those presents were never opened.

When an adult passes away we talk about their accomplishments.  The titles they held, awards they won…we talk about how many children they had and how many grandchildren followed them.  But when a child dies, the eulogy is so much different.  Instead it’s about the little things they enjoyed about their day, the little quirks about their personality, the dreams they had, and always the love they shared.

We can all learn a lot from these 20 children, and it has nothing to do with gun control, violent video games, or mental health evaluations.  The lesson these children have for us is much richer.  It is a lesson about how we can and must — come together.

COMING TOGETHER

At this point, we can’t do anything to change the way history will view this year…it’s almost over.  But as we look forward to 2013 we can use the events of 2012 as a compass for our future.  As technology pulls us farther and farther apart, these tragedies should serve as reminders as to why we need to come together and work together to build a better collective future.  Instead of focusing on our political differences we should instead shed light on the things we have in common — the things that make us all human.  Any great tragedy teaches us this, that we are all fragile and that we all need the help of others every single day.

History’s mind is already made up on 2012, but when it comes to 2013 — the World is truly what we make of it.  We’re still here, so what kind of world do you want it to be?

Practice the Present

•December 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment
"The oak tree in my garden appears to be looking at me now.  It must be more than 400 years old and the only thing it has learned is to stay in one place." - Paulo Coelho

The oak tree in my garden appears to be looking at me now. It must be more than 400 years old and the only thing it has learned is to stay in one place.” – Paulo Coelho

What if I told you that TIME was all in your head?

Whether you believe you never have enough of it, it’s quickly running out, or even that it’s on your side it’s really all just a creation of your imagination.  Of course you’re not the only one that feels this way.  Time is something we can all agree on, so that means it’s real, right?  Well whether it’s real or not can be debated.  But what is for sure is that the way we use it and experience it is different for everybody.

Collectively, time is unifying.  It brings us together.  We use it to look back at our collective history and to look forward at where we want to be in the future.  It reminds us of traditions and helps us plot out events to take place in the distance.  In his book “Stumbling on Happiness,” psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to this as the act of “making future.”  We are the only species on Earth that can do it…and, he suggests, it is the human brain’s greatest achievement.

“To see is to experience the world as it is,” he begins, “to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine — ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be.”  It’s called prospection:  the act of looking forward in time or considering the future.  And it is a trait, completely unique … to us.

The same incredible ability to look forward and imagine the future also allows us to look back at our past.  Our memory allows us to find events at will in the database of our mind, recover them, analyze them, and draw conclusions from them.  These conclusions are what we will use as aids in making our future decisions — our past serving as an unlikely but very common compass for our future.

But when you look at time this way and the way you use it to view yourself, your decisions, and the world around you … consider what is always missing.   NOW.

The present is something we almost always overlook.  Why?  What are we missing?  Psychologists like Gilbert would argue that when we view life only as what happened or what we want to happen next that we’re missing out on happiness.

Our natural distortion of time worsens our experience.  Analyzing areas of difficulty in the past and using them to chart the actions we imagine for our future can not only be detrimental…but flat out paralyzing to our bliss.

In Paolo Coelho’s Aleph he uses an old Oak Tree in his yard as the perfect metaphor for gauging time and wisdom.  The oak tree is over 400 years old, majestic and overwhelming.  He stares at it, remembering a time when it once brought him awe and astonishment, when he was younger and thinking about the power that must come with time, wisdom, and experience.  But now as an older man himself he realizes that this great oak hasn’t learned much in 400 years — other than how to stay only in one place.

“Time doesn’t teach,” a mentor tells him, “it merely bring us a sense of weariness and growing older.”  This may be why after a few failures in life we start to delay decisions and attempt to “control” time.  It manifests and transforms the way we view others around us, even the world which we see not necessarily as it is — but again as a creation of our own mind.  It’s shaped by a confusing mix of our own personal experiences and the persuasions of others around us.  Then it becomes “the way” that we filter life … again the compass we use to chart our path for the future.

Despite our ability to imagine happiness, to construct an optimistic view of the future — many of us instead fall too easily into the rut of negative thoughts.  It’s in our DNA, engrained in our evolution.  From our ancestors thinking negatively, analyzing the dangers and failings of the past and trying to minimize risk is what kept us safe, but also alive.  75 – 80 percent of the average human being’s thoughts are negative…even on a good day.  So even when we are hopeful about the future (or tell ourselves we are), we often self-sabotage that happiness by overlooking the most important part of it…the present.

The present, the now, IS the key.  Many great Eastern spiritual teachers believe that the present moment is eternity…it’s “karma.”  Not the way we all often mistake the word or its meaning.Past and future exist nowhere else but in our mind and the only way to change our future is to ignore it and the dangers from our past.  What you may find here is that despite thinking about all of the things that happened to you and all the things you want to happen in your future that in the present you feel calm and peace.  Whether we’re past or future oriented we have a tendency to identify ourselves with either…often both.

Studies show that people who truly know how to enjoy the Present…

Have higher-functioning brains.

Lower heart rate and blood pressure.

Less susceptible to illness.

Live longer.

Some Eastern monks are said to have lived around 120 years!  A major element in this “achievement” is their practice of present-oriented thinking.  I think it’s interesting to think that the people least concerned with “time,” are the ones that are around the longest.  So how do we get there…how to abandon the past and forget about the future.  I found an article with some interesting tips…

1.)  Witness your thoughts:  don’t try to “quiet” or “shut out” your thoughts.  Instead experience your own inner thoughts as you would noise.  In other words…allow for separation from your thoughts without trying to eliminate them.

2.)  Re-Identify yourself:  Most of us identify ourselves with our thoughts.  This is especially dangerous when we use our past as our guiding force.  This means that we identify ourselves as our past, the “inner voice” that’s constantly talking to us in our mind.  You’re much more than your inner dialogue.

3.)  Just Breathe:  Take a moment and pay attention the way you breathe.  Focus on each breath as it goes in and out and how it seems to take shape and move through your whole body.  Anybody that enjoys yoga would probably agree with this one.

4.)  Enjoy Music:   Music may actually be the language of the world.  It resonates in us, it actually has a positive effect on the cells in our body…nourishing them and allowing them to repair themselves after times of stress.  I remember years ago doing a story for a Children’s Hospital and in interviewing Music Therapy specialists they explained to me the way that music will actually merge with the body.  It syncs with our not only our heart beat but also our brainwaves.  Softer, soothing music was used by these therapists to improve motor functions and speech patterns in children who will never walk or talk like you or I.  However, their work was proven to increase not only the lifespan of these children…but to provide them with an overall better quality of life.

5.)  Peace of Mind:  It’s called “Mindfulness.”  Much like tip # 1, it’s the art of being aware. While you are distancing yourself from your thoughts make the effort to observe life around you.  This doesn’t just mean when you’re out in nature or around a lot of people that you can observe.  It means taking notice of your actions and all of the experiences around you…RIGHT NOW.  As I write this, I’m taking notice of the way my fingers feel when they hit the keys and the sound it makes, etc.  You can do this anywhere.

For a more in-depth list of these tips and the article that accompanies it…go to:  http://paidtoexist.com/how-to-live-fully-in-the-present/

I’m going to add one more to this list that I like…

6.)  Act Against Routine:  If we identify ourselves with our thoughts and in our thoughts we only analyze our past and use it to predict the future then we get stuck in a routine that is crippling.  Take action, when you feel a “routine” forming, including in your thought pattern then act AGAINST it.  Do what is not intuitive but counter-intuitive.  “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results,” said Albert Einstein.  I agree.

In closing, now is the time for you to take away your past…then, forget about the future.  What are you left with?  The present is where you are open…where you’re free…where you’re the real YOU.  Now that you’ve met that person, I guarantee that you’ll have a better compass for what to do next.  In fact, it’ll probably just “come to you.”

You might realize that the rest was all in your head…it was just your imagination.

Lincoln’s Lessons

•November 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” chronicles the last 4 months of our 16th President’s Life – focusing on his mission to abolish slavery.

This weekend Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic Lincoln was released in theaters throughout the country.  This epic, a decade in the making, chronicles the last 4 months of Abraham Lincoln’s life.  It is a span that begins with the conclusion of America’s Civil War, focuses on our 16th President’s struggle to abolish slavery and ends with (spoiler alert!) his assassination.  The film was inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Team Of Rivals, which I recently began reading.

Lincoln’s early life was such a struggle, full of poverty, tremendous hardship and deep sadness brought on by the losses of two women he was extremely close with – his mother and older sister.  In a country that cherishes it’s underdogs – Abraham Lincoln was the consummate.  He ascended from poverty to the most prominent position of power available in America and then carefully guided our scarred, fractured nation through it’s darkest hours.  With every new sentence you read about this man you can’t help but feel a deep resonance within that grows greater by the moment.  He’s is simultaneously relatable and paradoxically distant and untouchable — like a myth.  For me, Lincoln is so inspiring for his philosophy, not his political philosophy…but the philosophy with which he lived his life by.

There are a lot of life lessons we can learn from the way in which Abraham Lincoln viewed and lived life.  Here are the ones that I feel are his greatest…

Famous picture of Lincoln taken in 1863. Growing up in complete poverty, Lincoln was focused on his great life ambitions from a very young age.

1.)  Honor Knowledge:

Lincoln didn’t have the luxuries enjoyed by many of the politicians that would be his contemporaries.  His father was an illiterate farmer who seemed to always be working off debt.  Lincoln had to work excruciatingly long hours every day just to make ends meet.  Still, no matter how tired he was he made time every day to read.  Whatever book he could get his hands on, sometimes traveling miles to borrow one from another family.  There are stories about a young Lincoln that would be so excited when he would get a new book that he would be transfixed upon it, unable to think of anything other than opening it’s cover and discovering the illumination of its pages.  His father not only looked down upon his son’s passion for knowledge but actively tried to sabotage it — often destroying his son’s books or beating Lincoln as punishment for reading.  But Lincoln saw the knowledge he gained as power.  He used it to build his confidence and fill his powerful mind.  He taught himself how to memorize passages at will and throughout the rest of his life always made time to read.  Lincoln never stopped learning.  He used this knowledge to build his law practice, outsmarting lawyers with greater pedigree and academic degrees than him by far.  He did the same later with his political adversaries.  Abraham Lincoln never left America, but the depth and range of his knowledge allowed him to see the World.

Our Founding Fathers created America because they believed that people had the God-given right to govern themselves…that they should be uninhibited by kingdom or government in the fulfillment of their great inner potential.  As Lincoln was coming-of-age in a still very young America he had to fight for every ounce of his knowledge.  He cherished it so deeply that he would someday give his life fighting to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery.  It was an act that would pave the way for millions to experience the same “God-given” right.  In today’s America many of us treat our education and the powerful knowledge that can be gained from it with indifference and entitlement.  I can only imagine how this would make Lincoln feel.

Two-time Oscar Winner Daniel Day Lewis portrays the 16th President in the film “Lincoln.”

2.)  The Suffering of Others Is Your Own

This is a lesson in empathy. His historians have often focused on Lincoln’s deep, almost preternatural feelings of empathy.  He seemed to absorb the suffering of others and it would quickly manifest as his own.  Throughout the brutal days of The Civil War Lincoln often ended his nights by writing long, heartfelt letters to widows and parents of soldiers who had died in battle.  In these letters he often talked about the multitude of personal losses he had sustained throughout his own life — his mother, sister, and young son Eddie who died after a long struggle with tuberculosis when he was only four.

It would be easy to say that Lincoln’s empathy was shaped solely by the personal losses he endured, but history seems to indicate it goes much deeper than that.  Many agree that Lincoln had what could be called a “melancholy” demeanor and temperament.  He was extremely pensive, thoughtful and serious — giving him the appearance of a man that may have battled chronic and almost crippling depression throughout his life.  But when you look at Lincoln’s life on the whole you see a man that didn’t suffer from the depth of his feeling but used it to help shape his endeared philosophy on life.

There are almost comical stories about Lincoln’s empathy in his young life.  He’s said to have been deeply disturbed and almost personally hurt by seeing his schoolmates turning helpless turtles on their backs and burning their stomachs with matches.  This childhood experience is said to be one that Lincoln often revisited.  There’s one story about an older Lincoln who passed a horribly injured pig on his way into town.  The thought of leaving this defenseless animal there to die ate away at him so much that he went back, rescued the animal and helped nurse it back to health.

Those that knew him best report that Lincoln seemed to be incapable of hurting another living creature.  That their pain was unbearable to him that he would do whatever was in his power to “fix” it to lift the cloud of anguish he was experiencing.  Knowing all of this one has to wonder about the toll the carnage of The Civil War must’ve taken on him.  But maybe this tells us something else about leadership.  I believe that a great leader should be one of great empathy and a deep understanding of others experience.

There are studies that show that Empathy is on the decline in today’s world, falling precipitously.  Some organizations such as “The Greater Good” (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu) are working hard to develop programs promoting and increasing empathy, especially in children.  I believe that a detachment from our empathy is a fracturing of our very humanity.  From the way it sounds, our 16th President would agree with this statement.

3.)  Take Time to Decide

Lincoln struggled mightily with some of his greatest decisions – not only during his presidency but in his personal life as well.  When courting his wife Mary he revealed to his closest friends the conflict he felt within, wondering openly if we would be able to provide a happy home life for her at the same time as he pursued his vast personal ambitions.

The President was notorious for stalling, plotting, and struggling with big decisions.  Quietly taking his time to meditate on all of the possible angles.  It made his foes think he was weak and indecisive, but in truth it was this ability to weigh all of the possible scenarios and “see” all of the potential consequences to any action taken that formed his great perspective.

I’ve always believed that leadership should be strong, immediate, and decisive.  But as I get older I value more and more the benefit of giving big decisions the time they deserve.  Lincoln was a master at this, not only doing his own thinking but inviting the thoughts and opinions of those around him — from his most trusted confidants and sometimes to individuals that weren’t much more than strangers.  To be a great decision-maker, especially one who is counted on to make decisions for others, I’ve learned that you should never feel that your way is the only way or the right way.  Lincoln always invited discussion, wasn’t overly threatened by challenges to his opinion.  At the times in his presidency where things were at their worst, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to become egoless.

When you are making decisions from an egoless place you have the ability to think free of emotion.  This also allowed Lincoln to understand and appreciate the art of seizing an opportunity.  The main focus of Spielberg’s film is the struggle to Pass the 13th Amendment in the final days of the Civil War.  Lincoln could’ve settled for a quicker end to the War, which would’ve been the popular choice.  Instead he saw a unique opportunity to not only end the War but Slavery simultaneously and he pushed and persuaded all of the branches of our Government to make it happen.

When one operates from an emotionless and egoless place their vision into the future is vast.  He knew the importance of seizing the moment, probably because he gave each of his decisions the value, time and respect it deserved.

Lincoln visiting Union troops on the battlefield.

4.)  See Through the Eyes of Others

A continuation of Lessons # 2 and 3, Lincoln used his uncanny empathy to see from the point-of-view of others.  This again means a detachment from the needs, wants, and desires of oneself in order to accurately see and feel a situation from the place of another.  Empathy allows you to interpret the motivations, hopes, and possible decisions that others may feel and make.  This ability made Lincoln a formidable political foe, as he could accurately predict how challengers and enemies would think and act — always staying many steps ahead of them.  He knew exactly how to support and inspire others in order to get the best out of them even in critical and sometimes dire situations.

5.)  Be Open to Criticism

Lincoln took the time to surround himself with people that didn’t just follow his lead but often challenged him.  He invited criticism and kept discourses loose and open.  Some of his greatest rivals earlier in his political career would sit with him in his Cabinet and would later become some of his closest friends and greatest admirers.  He knew how to make a friend out of any enemy, not by manipulating but again leaving himself open.  With the thoughts and minds around him free of any constraint he was again able to get people operating around him at their best.  He didn’t see their challenges as personal attacks, it didn’t make him defensive, he instead saw their opinions as they really are — different, but never wrong.

6.)  Embrace and Encourage Humor

As serious and melancholy as Lincoln often was, he’s also remembered for being incredibly funny.  His sense of humor was quick, sincere and self deprecating.  As serious as the times he lived in were, he was always careful to not take himself too seriously.  In the middle of serious meetings he would often divert the attention of the room to the humorous with an anecdotal story.  Sometimes these moments of humor seemed to come out of nowhere, surprising those around him.  But it seems that the opposite is true…Lincoln knew what kind of effect his humor would have on others, often helping them to loosen up when they were too tense.

A great leader can innately sense what those around him are thinking and feeling, and thus knows exactly what to do to have them thinking and working at their best.  Often this means giving them the opportunity to breathe, forget, and relax for a moment before re-focusing on the difficult work ahead.  When it comes to bringing and keeping people together, humor is a indispensable tool.  Lincoln not only knew, but openly embraced and practiced this.

7.)  Enjoy the Art of Storytelling

Lincoln loved the escape offered by great stories.  When he was a boy and couldn’t get his hands on many books he would read the ones he had over and over again.  He’s said to know The Bible inside-out, have Aesop’s fables memorized, his knowledge of Shakespeare was deep and rich as was his knowledge of Greek mythology.  Abraham Lincoln not only loved a good story but also saw the immense value in sharing them with others.  If reciting Euclid or sharing a memory of a person or place from his past he was always telling stories.  Many times they were just entertainment or distraction, but other times he used them as metaphors…teaching lessons to others without force.  A great teacher suggests, guides, and leads their students to the right choice without ever telling them what to do.  Lincoln could be disarming at this, and he used stories to impart his lessons.

In Time Magazine’s recent “What Would Lincoln Do?” release there is a famous story about a bunch of abolitionists that confronted Lincoln during a New England speech in 1862.  Demanding he take a stronger stance against slavery, he responded by asking them if they “remembered Blondin?”  As far as they were concerned it had absolutely nothing to do with the Anti-Slavery movement, but they did remember Jean-Francois Gravelet who several years earlier walked over Niagra Falls on a tightrope.  Known as “The Great Blondin,”  Gravelet traveled back and forth over the Falls several times, pushing a wheel barrel, cooking an omelet and carrying others on his back…all on a tight rope no wider than 3 inches.

Lincoln used the man and his feat as a metaphor, asking the raucous abolitionists if they were there to see him walking over the Falls if they would shout out at him with instructions of how he should take his next step. It was clear to him and them that Blondin’s achievement was a metaphor for Lincoln’s own balancing act and a plea to his challengers to be patient.  Less than three years later he would deliver an End to Slavery only months before negotiating the end of The Civil War.

Instead of coming right out and revealing his innermost intentions, Lincoln instead used a metaphor to convey his message.  Stories create lively images that live inside of our minds, they force us to think and see more empathetically especially when they are in the hands of a storyteller as masterful as Lincoln was.  Lincoln cherished stories and their ability to bring people of all ages, beliefs, and backgrounds together to become of a single mind…if even for a moment.

8.)  Live for Your Legacy

From the time he was young, Lincoln was desperate to make a mark in this World, to have some kind of long lasting impact.  Even though he believed in God he privately doubted the presence of any kind of afterlife.  He knew that for his existence to matter he needed to do good work while he walked this Earth.  He was always conscious about the impact he was having, how he would be thought of an remembered and put tremendous pressure on himself to live up to his own expectations of himself.

Many succumb to the pressures put on them by others…living their whole life seeking the approval and acceptance of others.  Abraham Lincoln needed the support and even adoration of millions of Americans to ascend politically but looking back on the man and the way he lived his life it doesn’t seem as though he was dependent on the approval of others.  Lincoln seemed to have lived his life the way I desire to…working only for his own approval, following a life philosophy not of others’ creation or design, but of his own.

He lived for a legacy that he would admire and he knew that the only thing preventing or accomplishing the fulfillment of this legacy was him.  He didn’t make excuses, didn’t blame others when things didn’t go his way, he followed his own path.  Campbell would call say that he was “Following His Bliss,” Coehlo would say that this was the “fulfillment of his personal legend.”

Lincoln often thought deeply about existence, about destiny and fate, the role we were to play on this Earth and what of it was intentional.  In Spielberg’s film, at a critical point in the President’s wartime decision he openly asks two young military officers if they “think that we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”  According to screenwriter Tony Kushner there’s no evidence that Lincoln ever said this, but when he was first starting to think about the writing of the screenplay this line was the first thing he ever wrote down.  He explains that he believes this is something Lincoln would’ve thought about internally very deeply.

Above all, maybe the key to living a good life, to leaving a lasting legacy is not just believing in yourself and your own abilities but believing in the greater good for all that you share this world with.  For all of the causes that inspired Abraham Lincoln, for everything he truly believed in there seems to be nothing more important to him than the belief in his fellow man.  Our 16th President was a man that not only hoped and dreamed for a better world but worked endlessly to create it, to bring it to life within the hearts and minds of everyone he shared the world with.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

A great leader guides not with their power, politics or rhetoric they choose a path less traveled.  It is a path where they are led by the warmth and strength of their heart.  Open, free, and full they are generous with their energy and spirit.  Long before he gave his life for America, Abraham Lincoln had given us his mind, heart, and soul.

Like any great soul, he probably expected nothing in return.  The best way we can honor him now is to live a good life, one full of humor, empathy, and careful thought…a life rich with knowledge, compassion and a belief not only in ourselves but in all others we share the world with.  It should be a life that would make a great story one day.  One that Abraham Lincoln would be eager to read about by firelight or share with a stranger.

 

 
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