Unsung Heroes

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 left Laguardia Airport, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. As the Airbus A320 climbed over New York City, it struck a flock of geese, and lost thrust in both engines. The crew turned the plane south over the Hudson River back towards the airport, and attempted in vain to restart the engines. Minutes later, the crew guided the plane to a perfect water landing on the Hudson River, and evacuated all 155 people on board safely.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger became a hero that day for saving the lives of everyone on board. But he wasn’t the only hero involved. If you listen to the recordings of that day, you will hear the voices of many other heroes you have never heard of.

Patrick Harten was an air traffic controller for New York departures that day. While Captain Sully kept the plane under control and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles grabbed important information from the manual, Mr. Harten and his co-workers were talking to three airports and shutting down runways to clear that plane to land. (Other voices are labelled only as LGA Tower Cab Coordinator, LGA South Control, 461-Sierra-Alpha, and 152-Tango-Alpha.)

And unless you do some research, you won’t hear the names of ferry captains Vincent Lombardi or Brittany Catanzaro, who arrived within four minutes to rescue evacuees from the freezing water. You won’t hear the names of the paramedics, rescue divers, firefighters, helicopter pilots, boat operators or police officers who rushed to the scene to help, or the dispatchers, doctors, nurses, trauma counsellors and other professionals who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to coordinate the efforts and help everyone recover.

In the days and weeks following the crash, while talk shows heaped praise on Captain Sully, Patrick Harten took a leave of absence to recover from, as he put it, “the lowest low” he had ever felt.

It seems the only one who acknowledged the skill of air traffic controllers and the heroism of the first responders is Captain Sullenberger himself, who described the rescue this way:

It was amazing. It was crucial. It was life-saving – literally… ‘Thank you’ seems totally inadequate. I have a debt of gratitude I fear I may never be able to repay, to the first responders. To all of them.

As the hero worship of the world focused on Sully as the one who saved the day, he struggled through his own self-doubt, and finally learned to accept the praise with humility:

I don’t feel comfortable embracing it, but I don’t want to deny it. I don’t want to diminish their thankful feeling toward me by telling them that they’re wrong… I’m beginning to understand why they might feel that way. Something about this episode has captured people’s imagination. I think they want good news. I think they want to feel hopeful again. If I can help in that way, I will.

What makes a hero? Why do we worship some heroes, but not others? Why do we recognize some great acts of courage, but not others? Why do we pick out one team member to focus on, when hundreds of people contributed to the outcome? Why do some heroes make the news and others don’t?

I can’t answer those questions. (If you can, leave a comment below.)

But I can talk about those heroes who don’t make the news – the heroes that live right here, down the street. I need to recognize them. They make me feel hopeful again, to know that I live in a city surrounded by countless heroes who do their jobs anonymously every day. My gratitude will not be diminished just because they do not win awards.

So, here’s to the heroes whose names will never be mentioned, you who quietly smile when the paper says “the affected families received assistance,” knowing it was you and your team specifically that showed up with help and hope at a desperate time.

I want to recognize, not the caped avenger but the capable workhorse out in the field, pulling for someone who felt alone until you arrived. The fire chief who brought donuts and coffee to the scene. The Red Cross volunteer who brought blankets and teddy bears for the kids who suddenly became homeless. The hotel manager who bends the rules a bit to get that family into a warm bed for the night. The social worker who put in some free overtime to find a place for them to live on short notice and connect them with a kind-hearted landlord.

On the 6:00 news you see a smoking house and firefighters climbing ladders. What you don’t see is the brokenness of someone who lost what little they had, and now comes to you with nothing but the clothes on their back. You find them the resources they need to keep going. Better than getting a statue erected in your honour is hearing the words “Now I don’t have to tell my little girl there’s nothing to eat today.”

Here’s to the heroes who leave the phone on at night because you never know when dispatch is going to send you into a hot zone where people need your help right now, not in the morning after a good night’s sleep, because those people don’t have the luxury of going back to bed so you don’t either.

On the 6:00 news you hear about forest fires, earthquakes and tornadoes. They don’t tell you about the people you’ve met personally, the six thousand people waiting in evacuation shelters on hastily erected cots, sipping donated coffee, waiting for someone to tell them if their homes and businesses are still standing. While your friends complain about the rain or the smoke and poor visibility back in town, you are already a hundred miles down the road, rushing to go help.

Here’s to the heroes who drive a full day to a disaster site and then hit the ground running, helping until they can barely move. After being up 25 hours straight they fall into bed exhausted, and then get up 6 hours later to do it all over again, their feet aching the moment they hit the floor, but walking it off, because the pain they are here to carry is not their own.

While your friends are on Facebook saying “somebody should,” you are the one already doing.

While people grumble about the homeless problem, you are the volunteer showing up day after day at the Habitat for Humanity building site, building homes for those who cannot afford them.

While your boss’s boss is on TV talking about the organization’s successes, you are in the basement at the depot sorting through donations, cans with cans, clothing with clothing, throwing bags on piles.

You are the ones cutting the grass, stacking the boxes, writing the grant proposals, answering the phones, driving the van, setting up chairs, laundering the sheets, mopping up vomit, calming the addict, taking the abuse, cleaning the toilets, holding the helpless, comforting the afflicted. No one knows your name, because the volunteer in the basement with the mop never makes the news. But if it weren’t for you, none of this would be here. Without you, millions would be left to fend for themselves.

There would be no bed for the homeless, no food for the hungry, no visits to the elderly, no funding for the program, no clean floors, no clean sheets, no money to keep the lights and heat on.

And you can’t talk about it. You’ve signed a confidentiality agreement. While your friend is posting pictures of the muffins she baked, tweeting the 5km run or showing off the new bike, you’re saving a life and then going home quietly to tell your spouse. There are no victory laps, no reporters calling you, no tweets, no selfies. Just the amazing feeling you get from saving the world.

The people closest to you know a bit about what you do. Your closest friends say “thank you for doing this” when you leave a party early to take an urgent call and run off to help someone. Your organization puts on an annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner. You get to share victory stories with your co-workers.

And the best recognition of all, the smiles and thanks from the people you help, and on a good day, a warm hug.

There is no superhero coming to save us, no man of steel in a red cape, but there are hundreds of people who walk among us undetected, and they are the heroes that our city needs. You are making our society great and building a community worth living in.

Here’s to the heroes who don’t make the news. Here’s to you.

Thank you.

Posted in community, compassion, service | Leave a comment

Man Up

This one is for the guys.

It’s NHL Playoffs time here in my fair city of Calgary, which means a few men here are working their asses off to beat the Canucks and advance to the next round of playoffs, while some other men (shall we call them boys?) are getting completely wasted and going around yelling violent threats and vulgar abuse at your sister, your daughter, your mom and your friend.

Unfortunately, this behavior is not limited to this city and this point in time. It’s all over the place, and I’m getting really sick of it. There are boys uttering threats and abuse in the workplace, on the street, and in online discussion forums.

When confronted with their vile behavior, these boys like to wave the “freedom of speech” flag. They go on rants about how victimized they feel being censored and having their free speech rights stripped away.

Newsflash, guys: Stating an opinion or discussing an issue – that kind of thing is generally protected as freedom of speech. But if I threaten you – online or in person or whatever – if I threaten to come and find you and hurt you and leave you hospitalized, and then go on to prove that I know where you live and know what you look like and that I’m currently making plans to come over there with a knife and mess you up – that’s called “Uttering a Threat” and that’s illegal. That’s not an opinion anymore. That’s not freedom of speech. That’s messed up. That needs to stop. Like, now.

There are a lot of guys online who utter those threats and bully people and make life a living hell for a lot of people. They hide behind anonymous avatars while waving their guns in the air. They are sociopaths, psychopaths and the mentally ill living with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). They pride themselves on their ability to create hell on earth. And when confronted with their crimes, they shrug it off and tell everyone what they really believe: that they have every right to create hell on earth for people, and that no one has the right to do it back to them or stop them or regulate their behavior in any way.

That’s the bad news. Now here’s the good news:

At the same time, there are millions of men out there working tirelessly to make this world a better place. They are inventing cool new stuff, they are fighting fires, they are protecting the vulnerable, they are flying planes safely and driving trucks that bring food to your table and they are standing up for what’s right and good. Millions of men out there are being heroes and making the world a better place to live, with new ideas, new technology, and the hard work it takes to keep us all fed and housed.

Now ask yourself: Which kind of man do I want to be? What kind of reputation do I want?

Do I want to be the man who saves lives or takes lives? Do I want to be the hero who gives an inspiring speech and spreads courage through a hurting world, or do I want to be the selfish little prick who whines about censorship and threatens to hurt women and children?

Next ask yourself about what you’re saying online: Would I say this to someone’s face? Would I say it within earshot of a police officer? Would I say it within earshot of my mother? Would I say it if I weren’t protected by the anonymity of an online avatar?

Now ask yourself: Would I want to be treated the way I’m treating others? Guys, would you be comfortable if a man came up to you on the street and demanded you drop your pants so he could rape you in the ass? Would you be cool with that? If not, then why be cool with someone saying something like that to your sister, your mother, your daughter, your friend?

It’s time to man up, guys. Be a man. Instead of preying on the vulnerable, stand up and protect them. Instead of hurling abuse, speak powerful words of encouragement and compassion (or just keep your mouth shut and listen). Instead of demanding that strangers satisfy your sexual urges, consider how you can satisfy the needs for food, shelter and safety where you live.

Consider volunteering. Consider speaking up when your drunk buddy is being a jerk. Consider apologizing when you slip up and say something hurtful.

Because yes, we all make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep making the same mistake. Man up and admit you can do better. Then do better.

It’s not just the big bad murder threats that hurt people. It’s the little stuff, too. It’s the stuff that comes out of your mouth and you realize a moment too late that it was hurtful toward people who really don’t deserve that treatment.

Violence has been accepted for far too long. Being violent is not being a man – violence comes from fear and hate and mental illness and all the darkness on the opposite side of what it really means to be a man.

Being a man means protecting people from violence, not being the cause of violence. Being a man is about creating and sustaining a better world, not trashing the place in a drunken rage.

So be a man. Do your job. The world needs your help.


Recent news stories that helped inspire this diatribe:

Calgary Flames tell fans to stop harassing women

Anne Wheaton’s experiences with the Calgary Expo and the aftermath:



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The New Xenophobes

There’s a disturbing trend I’ve noticed where liberal-minded, good-hearted people go on a rampage or a rant on Facebook about a group of people they hate.

It starts out well-meaning enough. There’s some injustice, some suffering, something going wrong that they really don’t like, and the anger wells up in them, and they start spewing out all kinds of condemnation and blame. And maybe they’re right that the thing they hate is really a bad thing, that life would be better for everyone if we didn’t have this bit of injustice and suffering.

But in their anger, they cross the line into bitterness and hate.

We all do it sometimes, I think (except maybe the most saintly among us). We’ve all had those moments. Maybe it’s watching a leaked video of an American attack helicopter shooting journalists, and the thought occurs to us, American soldiers are evil, heartless monsters. Or a video of four cops beating up an elderly black woman, and so much anger arises, and memories of this happening over and over, and it becomes the thought, “All cops are racist pigs.”

In my anger, I cross the line into bitterness and hate.

One time at a big arts event, I was talking with a girl from Montreal, who started going on a rant about people from Alberta, who, in her opinion, are all in love with oil and money and all hate the arts.

I didn’t mention to her that I live in Calgary and have worked in Fort McMurray, or that I’ve also volunteered or worked for seven or eight arts organizations in Alberta over the years. I didn’t feel like she would have been able to compute that dissonance.

In that thought, I suppose I dismissed her just as she had dismissed my three million neighbours.

It’s so easy to form judgments. That’s how our brains are wired, with fear and judgment, so that we can recognize threats and survive in a cruel world.

We have to make a conscious effort to exercise bigger thoughts of acceptance when our fear tells us to shrink back in fear. It takes courage to open our hearts to other possibilities, to other stories, when it feels easier to rely on old stories of how terrible those groups of people are.

This is the courage that overturns slavery, the courage that forms new bonds of friendship, the courage that changes laws to accept the marginalized even when the old laws protect us more than the new. This is the courage that sees bright new possibilities even when our fear tells us that “those people” will never change.

In our courage, we can cross the line from bitterness to an open heart, from small dark fear to the light of strength.

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My weapon of choice against depression

Depression: probably the most common mental illness today.

“Mental,” as if depression is just in your head, affecting your thoughts. And, of course, it affects all your thoughts. It becomes your thoughts until you can’t tell the difference between what you’re thinking and what depression is thinking for you. It makes you believe that the negative thoughts it feeds you are all true, that you’re observing life as it really is, that you’re not actually looking at life through a dark lens that filters out the light. That the light no longer exists.

Depression wants you to think that your life is impossible. All of it – the pile of laundry on the floor, the grocery list, the possibility of human kindness. And not just think it but over-think it, as if thinking about it times a million will somehow solve the problem instead of turning it into a monster that eats your brain and spits you out.

Depression takes control of your mind and feeds it a steady diet of injustice, abuse, war, famine, and the end of life as we know it – all great reasons not to get up in the morning, when you really think about it. And depression never stops thinking about it.

Depression is a mental illness first. But it’s not just mental. It’s a spiritual illness. It’s an emotional illness. It’s a financial illness.

Emotionally, it bribes you with the possibility of taking away your negative feelings, and then it takes all your feelings and crams them into a dark dungeon so that even when it’s appropriate to have a good feeling about something, you can’t, because the feeling won’t show up. Depression convinces you that feeling anything is too dangerous. So you have to stop feeling, right? Seems logical, right? Of course feeling is dangerous. Of course you want to stop feeling angry and sad and jealous and betrayed and weak and full of rage. Just think about it. Rationally. Depression can take all that away. Because depression is oh so rational.

Depression thinks those thoughts on your behalf and as soon as you sign up for the plan, it stuffs the pain away, not so it will never hurt you again (because it will always resurface in a thousand different ways) but so you can’t effectively process it. The pain doesn’t go away. It only rots in the dark. It becomes toxic, like mold, like a tumor. It doesn’t die; it feeds on itself and grows twisted in the darkness.

Depression wants me to believe that I’m in control and thinking for myself, but actually, it’s deciding for me: what to think, what to feel, and what not to feel.

Depression is mental and emotional and also physical. Not only because it’s a chemical imbalance in your physical brain, but because it affects how you take care of yourself. Time to make lunch? Not so fast, cowboy. Let’s not attempt the impossible. The leafy greens in the fridge are dead because you’re too stupid to eat them, you dumb shit, and the leafy greens at the grocery store are on the other side of a chasm too great to cross. Especially when there’s that bag of chips from the convenience store, the only place in walkable distance today, and at least that will give you just enough energy to maybe do that pile of laundry or get your fat ass to work for another day of paycheck so you can buy another bag of chips tomorrow. Or if you’re up to it, you can go for the Chinese or whatever puts broccoli and other greens into the food that your body will accept at this point.

Except it’s not your body deciding what to eat anymore. It’s the depression telling you to eat the grease and the sugar and the caffeine and all the addictive stuff because let’s face it, why eat for health and long life when life isn’t worth living anyway?

So depression is mental, emotional and physical. Then it infects your relationships. It convinces you that people don’t really like you, because you’re not lovable, so you shouldn’t bother anyone. And even when you know that people want you around, it just feels like too much work to plan something and show up and care.

I still care about my friends and family, but depression does not. Depression seriously impacts my ability to care about myself or anyone else. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a bad person because I don’t put in the effort to care for others the way I should. And depression loves to remind me that I’m not doing what I should.

So depression infects everything in your life, and then it kills your finances. It takes away your desire to work, or even get out of bed some days. Or depression lets you keep working, but then takes your money and throws it at expensive addictions to try and get a little false relief.

Depression is all those things – emotional, financial, mental, physical. It takes your mind, it takes your emotions, it takes your body, it takes your money. And then it tries to take your soul. Your will to live. Your power to choose.

And maybe it succeeds for a while. It takes your spirit, as if the human spirit is just neurons firing in your pre-frontal cortex where your executive functions do their neurotic things. It takes your neurons and your neuroses and your pre-frontal cortex, because yes, depression is a head-game.

So then psychiatric treatments for depression try to get you to think differently. It’s a mental game. Unfortunately, when my brain is broken, it’s hard to use it to fight the depression that it’s creating for itself. Some people find relief in these head-games. I don’t.

But what if your soul isn’t just in your head? What if you can find your soul again, your will to live, not in a more successful pattern of thinking, but in your heart?

After three decades of depression, my soul is buried under a lot of muck. But it’s still there. And on a good day, I can still get to it.

Many days, depression wins the battle for my soul. But on a good day, I wake up just enough to reach for my core, the force for good that depression or so-called rational thought tells me is just in my head. On a good day, I reject depression’s demands that I live as a victim. On a good day, I know I’m not my thoughts.

On a good day, my heart breaks through the suffocating mental bullshit being heaped upon me, because the human heart is not just a feeling, it’s a muscle the size of your fist, and when it’s the last thing you’ve got, you’ve got to fight back.

Your heart is a muscle that exercises your right to choose.

When life seems impossible, we humans can choose to do it anyway, whether it’s the four-minute mile or standing in front of a hundred tanks or staying seated while an angry man threatens to have you arrested. Why? Because we choose to.outofdarkness

I would love to finish right there, as if I’m a goddamn hero for beating depression. But I haven’t beaten depression. That would just be another one of depression’s lies, rooted in shame, a desperate ploy to appear perfect, like I can handle this without anyone’s help, thank you very much.

And if I try to fight this battle alone, hiding in shame from the world, I will lose. Depression’s lie is that no one can help me, that no one wants to help me, and that relationships aren’t worth all the hassle. That lie kills thousands of people every year.

And so the choice to stand, to resist the darkness, has to be one of reaching out, of authentic connection to community, showing up real, because despite all my best efforts, I cannot keep pretending that I’m okay alone anymore.

And when I can be myself in a community of people that accept me as I am, then depression takes a hit. Authentic connection cuts through the shame, the isolation and the lies. It kills everything that depression feeds on.

And yet I’m still fighting depression. It still lies to me every day. But now I’m reaching out. And if any of this has connected with you, made you feel less alone, or given you something to laugh about or fight for, then today, together, we have ourselves one victory at least.

Just remember: Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep on loving. Keep on fighting.

Posted in faith, growth, healing | Tagged , | 6 Comments

The Clown Who Lost His Nose

Once there was a little clown named Chuckles who liked to laugh and tell jokes all the time. He was very silly and everyone liked him because he made them laugh, and everyone loved to laugh. He even had a bright red nose that he wore with pride.

Eventually, the day came when the clown looked at the bills piling up on his dining table, and he decided it was time to get a job. He looked in the Help Wanted ads for clown jobs, but those positions were already taken by clowns with much more experience. He saw lots of ads for accountants and truck drivers, but very few for joke-tellers and entertainers.

When the bills could wait no longer, he took a job as a clerk at a big corporation. They put him in a cubicle and made him add numbers up all day. He was not allowed to wear his red nose to work, but secretly he told himself jokes while he was working, and when coffee break came, he was the one making everyone laugh in the lunch room.

A year went by, and Chuckles found himself in the same job. Although he still liked to tell jokes, he shortened his name to Chuck so he could fit in better, and he kept his nose in a drawer at home most of the time.

Soon he found himself becoming very serious. He didn’t notice at first, but the demands of the job made him think seriously a lot more than he was used to.

Other things happened that made him think seriously. There was a big tsunami in the Pacific that killed 100,000 people. He got dumped by his girlfriend. He had arguments with people at work. There were wars in the Middle East. And then there was a big recession that left a lot of people without work, and afraid for their futures.

Chuck felt very sad about all these things. He experienced many other emotions as well, such as anger, frustration, disappointment, fear and loneliness. He started to realize why not everyone laughed at all his jokes. He started to understand how non-clowns thought of the world. He felt sorry for them.

He wanted to do something about the world’s problems, but he didn’t know how. So he kept working and paying his bills and he did the best he could with what he had.

One day he went to get his bright red nose out of the drawer so he could wear it to a party. But the nose was not there! He searched everywhere, but the more he looked, the more he could not find it. He had to go to the party without the nose. He didn’t have a very good time.

Chuck never did find his nose that day, or the next day, or the day after that. He became more serious. He worked hard. He started avoiding parties and he wrote dark poetry and watched the 6:00 news with a feeling of anger about all the injustice in the world.

One day, Chuck had had enough of all the pain and despair. He decided to go on a Quest to find the answer to all the world’s problems.

He started with the local library. He checked out a hundred books that all claimed to have answers to all the world’s problems, and when he got to the end of those, he checked out another hundred books. It took him a long time to read all the books. He also attended seminars and workshops that also claimed to have all the answers. He thought long and hard about all the answers, and he started putting them together in his head, and he tried to practice some of what he had learned. He started to feel a little better. It got easier to get through the day. He met some nice people and started to go out more again.

But he knew his quest was far from over. Even though he was a little happier, and his relationships improved, he felt a hole in his heart that would not go away. He knew that this hole was somehow connected to all the problems in the world, and if he could fill the hole, he could help others fill the holes in their lives.

One day he got a mysterious phone call. The caller was an old man who seemed to know everything about Chuck and his quest. He instructed Chuck to go to a certain special mountain in a far-away desert. There, he would find the answer to the world’s problems.

Chuck was nervous about the trip, but he knew he had to go. He researched the location and made travel arrangements. A few weeks later, he was on a plane.

Once in the hotel in that far-away place, he could hardly sleep, he was so curious about what he would find. Would it be a mountain of gold that he could use to buy food for the hungry and houses for the homeless? Would it be a World Peace for Dummies book? Perhaps an elixir that would cure any illness and make people happy? What could it possibly be?

The next morning at dawn, he picked up his rental car and drove out over the desert highway to find the mountain. He could see it a long way off. It took him two hours to drive to the mountain. At the end of the road, he found a sign that read, “No vehicles past this point.” So he collected his backpack with food and water, and set off up the mountain trail.

Only five minutes up the trail, he encountered a gatehouse. The gatekeeper came out and stopped Chuck. “No packs on the trail,” he said.

“This is my food and water,” replied Chuck. “I need it to survive.”

“Don’t worry about that,” replied the gatekeeper with a smile. “Your survival will be looked after. But you cannot take baggage with you on the path. You have to leave your baggage here.”

Somehow, Chuck knew he could trust the gatekeeper, so he laid his pack down and continued on the path.

An hour later, just as he was becoming quite thirsty, he found a stream, with cool, clean water. He sat and drank from the stream for a few minutes, and when he was rested, he continued on his way.

Another hour later, he started feeling quite hungry, tired and weak. Just then, a man came down the mountain path with sandwiches and fruit. He stopped and shared a lunch with Chuck. Chuck was very grateful, and asked how he could repay the man, but the man replied, “Just get to the top and find the answer, and then everything will be all right.”

Another hour later, in the early afternoon, he came to a fork in the path. There was no sign. He didn’t know which way to go. Just then, a girl came down the right-hand path singing a song. She stopped and greeted Chuck with a smile. “This is the path you want!” she told him, and continued on her way.

The suspense was really getting to Chuck. He didn’t know how far it would be or what he would find when he got there. Just then, a grey-haired lady came down the path with a big smile on her face. She was carrying an apple pie.

The lady stopped and sat down with Chuck to share some pie. It was one of the best apple pies that Chuck had ever tasted. His curiosity growing, Chuck asked the lady what she had found at the top of the mountain.

“Why, this pie, of course!” she replied.

Chuck’s heart fell. “Pie? The answer to all the world’s problems is pie??”

The lady laughed. “You’ll see!” she said with a wink, and then continued on her way.

A bit further up the path, he came upon a young man carrying a wrench. Chuck stopped him and asked him what he had found at the top of the mountain. “Why, this wrench, of course!” he replied.

Again, Chuck’s heart fell. “A wrench? How can that be the answer?”

The young man laughed. “You’ll see,” he said with a wink, and continued on his way.

Further up the path, as the afternoon sun beat down on him and sweat poured down his back, he encountered a young Asian woman coming down the path. She seemed quite happy. He asked her what she had found up there, but she was completely silent, and replied only with a smile and a little bow, and continued on her way.

Finally, just when Chuck felt his strength giving out, he found another stream, and stopped to drink and rest. When he looked around, he saw that the stream was coming from inside a cave. There was also a light coming from inside the cave. He went inside to investigate.

There, inside the cave, was an old guru, dressed in a robe, with a long grey beard. There were cupboards lining the cave walls, and a little fire in the middle, providing light and warmth inside the cool darkness of the cave. A small table was set out with tea and refreshments.

“Well, hello there, Chuckles,” the old guru said with a bright-eyed grin. It was the voice from the phone call! And sure enough, there was a phone by the man’s side, with a list of numbers to call.

“Nobody has called me Chuckles in a long time,” Chuck replied. He sat down and immediately felt at home in the cave.

“Pity,” said the old guru, offering him a plate of biscuits. “But then, that is why you are here, is it not?”

“I’m here to find the answer to the pain of the world, and my own pain. But all I’ve found is this cave, and smiling people coming out of it with pies and wrenches. It makes no sense.”

The guru laughed. “It doesn’t always make sense to our heads,” he said. “Because our heads are too little to find the answer. You must find the answer with your heart. And sometimes, that can take a long time.”

“Then is the answer here or isn’t it?” Chuck asked, worried that his trip may have been in vain.

“Yes,” said the guru. “Yes, it’s here and it isn’t.”

Chuck just stared at the man.

Then the guru got up and went to a cabinet. He ran his finger over a series of drawers, until he found the one he was looking for. “Tell me,” he said at last, “Who are you and what do you do?”

“My name is Chuck and I’m a clerk for a big corporation,” he responded.

No you are not!!” the guru barked with a voice louder than Chuck thought possible.

Startled, Chuck asked him, “Then, who do you think I am?”

The old guru pulled open the drawer, and said, “The answer is in here.” And with that, the old man pulled out a bright red nose – the very nose that Chuck had lost so long ago.

“Here you go, Chuckles – here is the answer.”

Inside his heart, Chuckles could feel something suddenly growing very big. His head was telling him, “This is ridiculous! This isn’t the answer! The answer should be serious!” But in his heart, he knew this was it. He didn’t know why he knew – he just knew.

“The answer,” the guru continued, “is not in what you do – it’s in who you are. When you find who you truly are, then the answer of what to do will come to you – as sure as the nose on your face!” Then the guru stuck the bright red clown nose right where it belonged.

Suddenly a laugh escaped Chuck’s lips. And he knew he wasn’t Chuck any more – he was Chuckles, the Clown!

“I’m so sorry I wasted all those years of unhappiness,” Chuckles told his new friend. “But I’m so glad I found my nose again, so I can go back to who I was!”

The guru laughed, too. “Oh, but it wasn’t a waste, and you will never go back to who you were!” he said. “You see, those years of heartache were necessary for you to learn compassion for other people in the same condition. If you had stayed a clown, and never experienced anything else, your understanding would be limited. Through your experiences, you learned to feel so much more.

“And now, you can live as the clown who understands what it feels like to be human.”

Chuckles laughed with joy as he pictured the life ahead of him. He knew that there would still be problems, but he also knew he could find his way through them. He just had to follow his nose!

Then a question popped into his head: “Guru, why did I have to come all this way to find something that I had lost at home?”

The guru grinned. “Because if the answer had been easy to get to, you never would have believed it!”

Returning down the path, he was able to help others the way he had been helped. A couple people looked at him the same way he had looked at the man with the wrench – with worry that the answer would be too small to help. After all, what could someone with a red nose or a wrench or a pie do to solve all the world’s problems?

But he knew, as sure as the nose on his face, what the stream of people up and down the mountain had taught him: that it’s not just the wrench or just the red nose that solves the world’s problems, because there is no one solution. The answer was found in the great diversity of people all doing what they were born to do: to fix machines, to feed people, to build things, to help people think, feel and laugh.

Chuckles went on to help a lot of people laugh – and to feel. And because he understood their frustration, loneliness, despair and anger, he was able to bring laughter and light right into the heart of real life – not avoiding the pain, but dancing in the middle of it.

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Drowning in Accumulation

Last night I had one of those dreams where you wake up and realize: “That wasn’t just about billiard balls, was it? That was my life.”

I am about to start a game of pool with a friend. I rack the balls, but there are extras on the table. The extras look similar to the usual spots and stripes, but they’re a bit different – a rainbow colored stripe, or one size too big. I sort them out, and start to arrange the proper balls in the rack when I realize there aren’t enough normal ones, and still too many misfits. More sorting.

Next time I turn around, there’s a whole box of billiard balls to sort. Still too many wrong ones and not enough right ones. Pretty soon the dream becomes more about sorting boxes than about racking up a game of pool. The boxes are full of balls – some as small as marbles, some as big as grapefruit, and none of them the ones I needed. Then I’m pulling chess pieces out. Really? Chess pieces? I comment to a passerby about how ridiculous this got. And yet, I don’t quite realize it’s a dream, even though it has turned into a kind of biblical account of the 5,000 game pieces from one box.

Okay, enough back-story and wake up already.

As I laid in bed trying to shake the feelings of frustration, I realized that the dream was a reflection of the frustration I’d created in my life.

Too much crap and clutter. Not so much in physical objects – I’ve done a lot of clearing – but rather, clutter in my habits and distractions. I over-complicate the things I want to do. Buying a gift? It has to be the perfect gift, so I turn it over in my head a few times before taking action. I don’t like any of the options, so I keep adding more options. Then I set that aside, and go tackle something else, like a script for a stage play. Except I don’t have any fresh ideas, so I turn on a movie to look for inspiration. After I’m done the movie, I pick up a Neil Gaiman novel. Next thing you know, I’m in the middle of a Doctor Who marathon on Netflix. And there went my Christmas break.

My head gets more and more cluttered with ideas and unfinished tasks (not just the script and the gift now, but dishes and laundry and going for lunch). It keeps piling up. I’m never ready to start the game. More sorting. Ever more sorting, pondering, planning, rejecting, considering.

The only thing that will clear this clutter is action – to do the thing on the list, stroke it off and move forward. It might not be the perfect thing, the perfect gift, or the perfect paragraph of prose, but it will be a shot anyway. I’d rather take a shot and try to sink something than keep sorting the billiard balls all day.

Question for you: What’s one shot you can take right now?

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When I experience frustration, anger, disappointment and fear, I often look outside myself for the cause of it. I start to tell myself stories about where that pain originates (because I can’t believe that it comes from within). I blame others, whether they are directly affecting my experience or not. I could blame the guy who cut me off in traffic, or the co-worker who is late getting his share of the work done. I could also blame people in other countries who are doing things to hurt people I’ve never met; I experience that injustice within me, feel the pain, and blame those people for my pain. I can blame individuals, or whole groups of people (like Republicans, for example).

This is how wars start. This is the root of all kinds of phobias.

What if I could allow the thought, just for now, that my pain comes from the stories I’m telling myself about my experience, and not from the experience itself? What if I could give up trying to blame and manipulate other people, because playing the victim does nothing to alleviate my pain?

What if I could allow the thought, just for now, that other people experience pain similar to my own? What if everyone in the whole world experiences pain and frustration and fear just from being human? What if, inside, we’re all suffering to some extent?

Could I then, instead of seeing others as the source of my pain, see others as people who are suffering just like me? Could I see them with empathy and compassion? Could we work together to alleviate our collective suffering?

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