Saturday, April 29, 2017
NICU, NWM, Chicago, IL
"Where's the good?” the young father asked himself on the eve of his young daughter Kate’s third brain surgery after being struck by a car. Their story is related by Emily Smith in The Power of Meaning who posits that storytelling is one of the pillars of meaning in our lives. Anthropologist Mary Bateman notes that storytelling is an act of creation improvising like a jazz musician. Smith observes storytelling translates into an effort to make sense of the world and impose order on disorder, creating a coherent narrative.
The third surgery followed months of therapy and was scheduled to replace the piece of Kate’s skull that had been initially removed to ease pressure on her brain. Kate’s father found the redemption he sought shortly after Kate came out from under the anesthesia. Hospital staff began to enter the recovery room one at a time to introduce themselves. Most of them began by stating that “You don’t remember me but…I was the admitting physician when you came into the ER, I was the nurse with the operating team, I was the chaplain on duty that spent time with your parents, I was the social worker on your case, I was the nurse that cared for you for the first days after your accident.”
The last visitor of smiling faces was the nurse that worked with Kate during the long summer days of therapy. Kate’s father thanked the nurse for coming by to wish Kate the best, but remarked “There’s something else going on here, isn’t there?” The nurse responded that “for every ten kids we see with this injury, nine of them die. There is only one Kate. We need to come back and we need to see her, because she is what keeps us coming back to work in this place every day.”
The young father later reflected that this redemption “doesn’t make the crisis worthwhile, but it makes it worth something.” Psychologist Dan McAdams concludes that people rate their lives more meaningful when they have redemptive stories to tell about extraordinary events in their lives. These stories come from scars that have healed over wounds that make a lasting impact on the person’s life.
When a monitor indicated a slight blip of concern for my newborn grandson, he was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at Northwestern Medical in Chicago. Thankfully, there was no problem, but the ensuing few days of cautionary testing were intensely stressful and bonding, although positive. The unit is locked and staffed with advanced technology and extraordinarily competent, nurturing specialists and practitioners.
We quickly got to know one of the senior nurses on the night shift who had returned out of retirement on weekends. She assured us that my grandson would be fine. I asked how she managed to keep it together all these years while working in this intense environment with premature infants and critically ill newborns. One in eight babies is born prematurely in the United States. The senior nurse responded that within the past few weeks, she was requested to report to the front lobby. When she entered the lobby a young mother introduced herself and then asked her twin daughters to introduce themselves. They told her that they were the preemie twins that she had nursed to health during their first weeks of life and they wanted to meet her and personally give her a hug of thanks. “That’s why I can get up and come to this place, even out of retirement”, the nurse replied with a smile.
Adam Gopnik observes in The New Yorker that when stories are told well they “levitate the room.” The emcee of The Moth where these stories are shared concludes that storytelling “is reaching out into the void and connecting with people and letting them know they’re not alone.” Kinda like a blog post.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Free Taco, Jamestown, NC
“My job isn’t to take your money. My job is to feed you.” That was the response of a food cart owner as he handed a taco to a man who just discovered that he had forgotten his wallet. This story was related in The Power of Meaning by Emily Smith who writes that “Not all of us will find our calling. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose...no matter what occupies our days, when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant. Each of us has a circle of people whose lives we can improve. That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.” And feeding people not only involves the body, but also mind and spirit!
William Damon, a developmental psychologist, notes that purpose has two important dimensions. The first is “the forward pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives.” The second involves a contribution to the world, “the desire to make a difference in the world, to contribute to matters larger than the self.” The German thinker Immanuel Kant asks us to consider a person who “finds in himself a talent that by means of some cultivation could make him a useful human being in all sorts of respects…Should he abandon the cultivation of his natural talents for a life of enjoyment and ease? Or should he pursue his purpose?”
Kant’s questions pose the issue that one’s purpose may not be exclusively pursuing worldly pleasures but devoting one’s life to help others live better lives and thus making the world a better place. I spent about forty years of my life studying and working to add value to my skills tool kit and exchanging those life years for a paycheck to support my family. Visualizing a stress-free retired life on the beach and golf course helped keep me going during those challenging days of working nights and weekends against a deadline or arriving home at 2:00 AM from a weather-delayed flight when I knew that associates at the office were dealing with their own issues and not concerned with mine. I also realized that a good part of my identity was associated with my job, especially since it consumed much of my time. As I neared retirement, I read Bob Buford’s book on Halftime, Changing your Game Plan from Success to Significance. Buford reminds us that halftime is a time of revitalization and new vision that encourages us to “multiply all that God has given me, and in the process, give it back.” So I made sure that my second half game plan emphasized giving back, understanding that burning that much limited time on leisure would not be a very fulfilling life.
Rick Warren writes in The Purpose Driven Life that “Self-help books, even Christian ones, usually offer the same predictable steps to finding your life’s purpose: Consider your dreams. Clarify your values. Set some goals. Figure out what you are good at. Aim high. Go for it! Be disciplined. Believe you can achieve your goals. Involve others. Never give up…But being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose are not at all the same issue!” These approaches are all self-centered versus God-centered and he created us for a much larger cosmic purpose into eternity. The atheist Bertrand Russell wrote that “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.”
Brene Brown notes in her book Rising Strong that a critical component of resilience and over-coming struggle is spiritual practice. All of us experience the storms of life. She defines spirituality as “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to one another by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and belonging. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.” We find support and celebrate our spirituality inside our houses of worship and we exercise our spirituality outside the walls of those houses.
Bob Buford concludes his book with the prayer “that you will have the courage to live the dreams that God has placed within you. See you at the end of the game.”
Sunday, April 23, 2017
KC FAMILY TRIBE, Overland Park, KS
Who’s in your tribe? We humans all have a basic need to feel that we belong. People in our tribe mutually care for one another and frequently have positive interactions with one another. Belonging adds meaning to our lives. Author Emily Smith notes in her book on the Power of Meaning that there are “four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence.” Even though we may move around and our life circumstances may change, we can still find meaning in these pillars in our new circumstances.
It’s very fundamental for us to find belonging from our very first breath to our very last on this planet to feel affirmed. Those within our circle of influence represent our high-quality connections and are tuned in to reciprocate positive regard and care. After giving this some thought I have more folks in my tribe than I realized. I suspect that applies to most people when we stop the merry-go-round and take inventory. Those in our tribe include our creator, family, friends, neighbors, work associates, classmates, church members, small group members, sports teammates, etc. Even though there are billions of people currently sharing this planet with us, there is a very limited number that we have the time and capacity to maintain meaningful relationships with in our tribe.
We interact with a much wider group of people on a very limited scale in our lifetime. Sadly, if we don’t have the time or inclination to acknowledge their humanity, it can have a negative effect on both the rejected and the rejecter. I think this especially applies when we may interact with some of them on a somewhat regular basis such as those who provide services to us. Not acknowledging their presence in our life can leave them feeling devalued, diminished, and feeling that their lives are less meaningful. So we need to be more deliberate about being respectful and appreciative of their service and existence.
Our modern culture certainly seems to be moving in a less inclusive direction. More people are leaving their air conditioned offices in their air conditioned vehicles and arriving home through their automatic garage doors into their air conditioned cocoons. We can now purchase almost everything we need inside our cocoons on-line without the assistance and interaction of a human being and have it delivered to our doorstep sometime during the day by the invisible UPS guy. When we do go foraging outside, many retailers such as the grocery stores and gas stations encourage us to use self-service stations and many fast food franchises have a drive-thru.
I recently returned to the “good old days” of interaction by frequenting a new local bakery owned by a young woman who always had the dream of having such a business. She understands the value of quickly establishing a relationship with her customers. It’s tough to compete with the big franchises on both price and variety, but the concept of belonging has a significant competitive advantage. This little bakery is one of the few places that I frequent where I have a relationship based on first names that offsets her competitors’ advantages where I’m just another transaction.
Emily Smith concludes her discussion on belonging by writing “meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. Only through focusing on others do we build the pillar of belonging for both ourselves and for them. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.” It’s no coincidence that when challenged about the greatest of all the laws, Jesus answered that we simply need to love others and love God.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Green Bank Telescope, Green Bank, WV
Country singer Kenny Chesney has a new hit song titled “Noise” lamenting that “in the streets, in the crowds, it ain’t nothing but noise. Just trying to be heard in all this noise.” Emily Smith in her new book on The Power of Meaning notes that “we humans have a primal desire to impose order on disorder—to find the signal in the noise. We see faces in the clouds, hear footsteps in the rustling of leaves, and detect conspiracies in unrelated events. We are constantly taking pieces of information and adding a layer of meaning to them; we couldn’t function otherwise.”
I like the analogy of seeking the signal in the noise. It reminded me of the ongoing scientific quest to detect intelligent extraterrestrial life in all the electromagnetic radiation noise in the universe and beyond. Phenomena such as gamma-ray high energy bursts originate throughout the universe and are candidates for extraterrestrial communication. Many folks aren’t even aware of the very sophisticated technology that’s been developed and employed around the world such as the Green Bank Observatory in a remote West Virginia woodland that listens to the noise in outer space. Then the challenge is to attempt detection of some possible signal in the noise indicating a transmission from civilizations on other worlds.
Our modern world is indeed contaminated with noise from our activities including all manner of transportation and electronic devices such as smart phones and 24/7 cable television. This makes it very difficult for us humans to place life on pause, jump off the merry-go-round and find a place of solitude. The Psalmist knew this when he wrote in chapter 46 verse 10, “Be still and know that I am God.” For our own sanity, we really need to have times and places of solitude so that we can listen to our creator and sort out the signals in the noise that can help us maintain order in our lives.
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Apparition, Glenola, NC
was moving from west to east,
sunset to sunrise.
Formed like cirrus clouds,
but much lower in the sky,
Flowing wispy hair,
directing us to the east,
pure white flowing robe.
What is the meaning?
What's the signal in the noise?
Vapor or spirit?
revealed Christ to the Wise Men,
announcing his birth.
An angel of God,
revealed His second birth to
Look to the sunrise,
on Easter morning!
Friday, April 14, 2017
Road Warriors, KCI, Kansas City, MO
"The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."--George Eliot
Not everyone will find fame,
but everyone can find humility.
Not everyone will find their calling,
but everyone can find purpose.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Peace, Olathe, KS
A sleeping baby,
gently breathing in my arms,
gives purpose to life.
Gently brushing cheeks,
to let him know he is safe,
so precious and sweet.
Eyelids are twitching,
hiding rapid eye movements,
and dreams of new worlds.
His small hand in mine,
feeling the warmth of trusting,
and the bond of blood.
A smile slowly forms,
and transfigures the child to
a cherub of peace.