Travails Into Triumphs

When I was six years old, my parents embarked on a long and awful divorce. When I was eighteen, getting hit by a car sent me into the twilight zone where years of memory were lost, my intellect plummeted to the level of a second grader, and speech and physical therapy became a way of life. Two days after I collided with that car, my grandmother was killed. I have suffered depression that stewed me in the fog of private desolation for weeks on end. I have slogged through three surgeries to fix broken bones.

broken-heart-sad-wallpapers-pics-for-boys.7I share these stories of adversity not because I feel special. Exactly the opposite. All of this stuff has taught me one very important lesson: behind each person I meet, behind every friend and family member, there are histories like my own. Everybody has suffered loss and trauma and fear – many folks far more than I have.

Sometimes we get a peek behind the curtain of people’s lives, a glimpse into the experience of those we encounter and know and love. When this happens, when we see the hurdles faced by others, a crucial aspect of being human becomes clear.

Nobody lives without hardship.

I worked with a young woman whose family suffered five deaths over two years. A friend once told me, voice trembling, about the night she was violently raped. I know a young teen who pines for the day she can move out of her house, away from her alcoholic mother. Due to an injury, my wife can no longer pursue her life’s passion. My stepfather has limped around since a landmine in Vietnam nearly removed his legs altogether. My best friend’s blood disorder almost killed him.

Though I can’t fully comprehend what it feels like to own these histories, I can try. What if we saw one another as those difficult events? What if I wore my brain injury as a hat? What if your irritating neighbor donned her daughter’s death as an apron? What if the moody boy walking past your house every afternoon bounced not a basketball but instead dribbled the day his mother left?

NameTag2I think we’d be gentler with each other. Also, some allowances might come in handy. I have a rotten short-term and working memory since being hit by that car. Please cut me a little slack when I forget your name. Each person around you has some kind of deficit caused by misfortune. Less patience. Only one leg. A perpetual sense of loss. Estranged family. Depression. Hopelessness. Anxiety.

Of course, nobody should be defined solely by the horrible stuff they’ve faced, so we shouldn’t stop here. Instead, we can acknowledge the past and go on to appreciate its products.

In honor of my loving parents and the upstanding adults who guided me growing up, I want to be known as a man who helps a youth mentoring program thrive. My friend told me she accepted rape as part of her past but will not allow it to ruin her future; she became a psychiatrist. 168986_10150396505740788_5844762_nThat young teen with the dysfunctional mother ought to be cheered for her resilience in the face of astonishing odds. With soccer no longer in the cards, my wife cultivates a new passion – rock climbing. After Vietnam, my stepfather could never go for long hikes, but he still established his own thriving small business and recently bought a bicycle that he rides every day. My friend with the blood disorder completed an Ironman-distance triathlon – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26-mile run – in 11 hours 55 minutes.

At times, life is difficult for everyone. If we’re lucky, our friends and family and mentors walk beside us along the way to provide support when we need it most. As a result, many people I know have transformed travails into triumphs. In a world short on empathy, it’s good to exercise compassion because we don’t know what kind of tribulations might be rocking somebody’s world.

Like that young woman who watched so many family members die or commit suicide: she endured more than her fair share of misfortune. Somehow, she bounced back over the years instead of regressing. Sure, she owns some heavy baggage. But she keeps driving forward despite these moments of pain I will never understand.

Maybe I’m kinder to her, knowing what I know. The shape of your abundant past is a mystery to me, but with a little imagination and humility, I can be kinder to you too.

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Found outside the elementary school in Moab: GOAL… “To be respectful person.” Yeah, that’s my goal too.

Originally published in the Moab Sun News.

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Strength in Diversity

When I was five years old, I said to my mother, “I don’t ever want to grow up.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because,” I explained earnestly, “adults do not run everywhere they go.”

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Routeburn Rage Mountain Marathon, 2002.

I love running. I have run marathons and ultra marathons for fun and in competition, over trails and roads, on five continents. Sometimes I ran all day, lost in the beauty of mountain tracks and drinking the sweet nectar of what it means to be alive. After I’d been hit by a car and suffered amnesia that left me confused and groping for an identity, running was still there for me.

15k in Tangier Morocco, 1998.

15k in Tangier Morocco, 1998. The man in blue is Muhammad, a friend who ran with me all over Tangier and its outskirts.

Long story short: even though my knees aren’t able to travel at pace for such distances nowadays, running has always been an important part of my life.

So when I overheard a conversation recently while eating Indian food at a restaurant in Provo, it shook my world a little bit. The woman at a neighboring table told her husband about a mountain marathon taking place in the Wasatch Range. “All day they’re running on trails up there,” she said.

The man nodded, forked more tikka masala into his mouth, and said, “Hm.”

“I know,” she intoned with a grim shake of her head. She paused, looked at him seriously, and asked, “What’s wrong with people?”

What’s wrong with people?

I’ll be the first to admit sometimes it’s difficult to understand why folks do the things they do. 6f29db0d973638a5b6ad8c4532346c9dFor example, it remains a mystery to me why many people enjoy cooking. I don’t even like to heat water on the stove for oatmeal in the morning. And don’t get me started on math. Nothing could more thoroughly boggle my mind than the idea of somebody sitting down to a math proof and thinking, “This is fun!”

Honestly, I don’t even know why running is one of my favorite activities. Probably something in my DNA and in my past makes running light up the regions of my brain associated with pleasure and gratification.

Here’s what we do know, thanks to science and research: animal populations, including humans, thrive when a broad assortment of traits exist in their gene pool. diverseteamThe same principle grounds a common adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity strengthens a species’ shot at survival and success. So before we ask why anyone would bother to become a chef or a mathematician, maybe it would be wise to remember the good that comes from a broad range of skills and interest within our society.

After all, we like to eat, especially delicious food prepared by talented people. And it’s nice to know accountants keep our balance sheets balanced while engineers keep our planes in the air. For humanity, mathematics is good.

Our civilization depends on specialization. Only through a vast division of labor can we hope to develop new life-saving drugs, beautiful art, and advances in technology that increase our knowledge and improve our lives. Together, every person applying unique strengths and talents, we are far stronger than any one of us alone, not just for the horsepower, but also for the remarkable accuracy of these many brains working in synchrony.

Jbuilding_committee_-_surowiecki_book-resized-600.jpgames Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, explains collective knowledge can actually be more insightful than individual understanding. For example, if you ask a large group of people to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, the average of all those guesses will usually be extremely close to the actual number of jellybeans, often nearer than any single estimation.

When I remember that woman’s comment – What’s wrong with people? – I can’t help but think she fell victim to a very human tendency, that of dismissing others who are different. But more than that, she missed a very powerful question indeed: What’s right with people?

Answer: a whole lot.

image1We come in many beautiful shapes, colors, and sizes, with smart insights in every realm, from cuisine to mathematics, with a taste for many things, from gardening to running marathons. As a child, I was wrong. Adults do run everywhere they go. It’s just sometimes running looks a lot like chess and woodworking and mountain biking and doing community service.

No moment offers more opportunity for misunderstandings and judgements than our election season. This is when our different views and opinions collide and vie for distinction, just as they should. However, while navigating this election season, it would probably do us good to grant those different voices respect because only in our diversity are we most brilliant.

 

Originally published 9/17/14 in the Moab Sun News.

Lovely running track on the Banks Peninsula, New Zealand.

Lovely running track on the Banks Peninsula, New Zealand.

A Life of Failure

Failure is underrated.

IMG_4042_2I have abundant experience in this arena. I poured weeks of work into two 100-page federal grant applications that earned polite rejection letters. Tied to the end of a rope, I’ve plummeted off rock climbs again and again, most recently only a foot from the top of the cliff – literally, twelve inches from grabbing the last hold.

With trepidation, I joined Moab Toastmasters, a public speaking club where I stumble over my words and struggle to express myself clearly, or sometimes – gulp – at all. I’ve said things in meetings and in the halls at work and in emails that later made me blush.

One time I admonished a student in the wrong way for distracting his classmates at exactly the wrong moment, and embarrassed him. I’ve earnestly written passages for a novel that turned out so ridiculous my wife and I later laughed until we cried while remembering a teen practicing kung-fu forms in the haunted forest under the secret gaze of a mooning love interest.

Old_Running_ShoesOne of my most spectacular fails: I trained for months to run a 100-mile trail race only to drop out six miles from the finish line.

This is just the beginning of my catalogs of missteps. Sometimes I take aim at too lofty a goal, but most often, I just screw up. I make mistakes.

As the years roll past and the errors mount, I’ve come to see failure as one of the most powerful things about being human. I’m not talking about failures that cost someone their life or injure people. I’m talking about those moments when we mess up in a way that teaches something about the limits of social decorum, the law of reduced flexibility with age, the constraints of physics, which dance move is no longer hip, about how the world works.

Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

I totally understand nobody wants to fail. We aim at perfection – in our duties on the job, as a spouse, in raising a child. However, no matter how careful we are, someday something will go wrong. Just check out a blooper reel from the latest romantic comedy. Even the world’s best actors aren’t perfect, and honestly, their mistakes sometimes entertain more than the film itself.

So here’s where the magic happens: in light of the fact that failure is inevitable, despite best laid plans and any devotion to excellence, I have two options. I can take the normal route of denial and cling to the voice of the ego who avoids risks and refuses to admit defeat. Or I can acknowledge my fallibility and embrace these blunders as opportunities. I can take those grant proposals and turn them into successful applications to other organizations. I can use those climbing moves on a new route. That’s the magic of humanity – the ability to remember and improve upon the past, to turn failure into flourishing.

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According to studies, one of the reasons children learn things so fast, like new words and novel motor skills, is their willingness to make mistakes. Children haven’t yet adopted our aversion to failure; in trying, failing, and trying again, they grow.

The other boon of failure is this: it means we’ve striven for something. Even though I didn’t finish that 100-mile race, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Those months of training weren’t wasted. Rather, I saw many beautiful miles of trails, shared smiles with fellow runners, tasted rain on my lips, discovered the limits of my endurance.

So I hereby make a resolution. I resolve to take myself less seriously. I’m only human. Maybe I’ll try that new dance move after all. Perhaps I’ll write another (somewhat less absurd) novel. I’ll attempt the difficult rock climb that looms beautiful and intimidating over the crag. I will do these things because failure isn’t embarrassing. Faux pas isn’t fatal. And there’s no shame in trying, only possibility.

403187I take inspiration from Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” From Thomas Edison who said, “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And from my father, a successful city manager who has told me more than once, “If I do something well, it’s only because I’ve made a mistake before.”

By embracing the risk involved in being human, perhaps I can find a little more inspiration and success, even in failure.

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 1/8/14)

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Reaching to the Other Side

I remember.

Hospital BedWhen I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”

Duly warned, my friends and family waited.

Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”

Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.

But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?

A hand in mine.

Hand in HandI remember that human contact as if it were the first experience of my life. Somebody was holding my hand, and I gave three squeezes, a coded message of words I cannot forget.

I. Love. You.

When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.

I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.

I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”

Bill Moyers talked with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Bill Moyers’ interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.

In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.

Found here.

A good example of the irrational tribal mind. Found here.

I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.

So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.

As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:

I. Love. You.

I love you America. I love you fellow American.

Never STOP Loving

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)

Guest Blog: YOLO, by Megan

Today was my first day back to work after ten weeks of vacation; a summer spent traveling around the West in search of beauty and adventure. IMG_3382Climbing road trips are my definition of heaven, a time when my mind and body feel the most carefree and inspired. Meaning lies everywhere on the road: reaching the anchors on a rock climb near my limit, swimming in cold rivers with good friends, collecting rocks on the wild and scenic beaches of the Olympic coast. The world feels like a big, happy playground built just for me.

Going back to work after an amazing road trip is always an adjustment.

The adjustment really stings when I learn that one of our former mentees has died at the age of 15.

It was the first half hour of work for the 2013 school year. I was making plans for our annual mentoring rafting trip while Dan sifted through a backlog of e-mails.

“Chris Tanner died,” Dan suddenly announced in a voice of disbelief. Together we re-read the email informing school staff of Chris’s viewing at six o’clock. We sat in silence for a moment. Wrapping my brain around death is impossible, but it’s even more confusing when a young person dies. Chris is our second mentee to pass away, and I’m learning the shock comes down like a fist. Shock first, then the sadness.

FBI had seen Chris walking around town shortly before summer break. He looked healthy and content. Now in high school, he’d shot up to 6 foot, 2 inches and slimmed down. He had joined the football team and seemed to be finding his niche in life. His coach reports that he’d recently taken over the leader board in the weight room after bench-pressing 225. I’d never thought of Chris as an athlete in his younger years, but some boys come into their own in high school.

For four years Chris had been part of Grand Area Mentoring in elementary and middle school. He’d never been in much trouble, but his teachers wanted to make sure he didn’t feel lonely. They believed a mentor might make school a friendly place for Chris. And even though Chris graduated from the program, he always gave me a smile and a wave when I’d pass him on our small town’s bike path.

I got in touch with his former mentor, a close personal friend, to give her the news. She was heartbroken. Traveling in Alaska, she had no idea Chris had passed away and wouldn’t be able to attend the viewing or the funeral. Chris had grown up with a caring single mother and grandmother, and as he moved into middle school, we’d switch him to a male mentor. I spoke with Kevin as well, another conversation filled with disbelief and melancholy.

There’s not much comfort to give a mother of a recently deceased son, but I wanted to go to the viewing to offer Chris’s mom and grandma a hug and pass along the condolences of his former mentor.

“When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor. Thank you.”

“When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor.”

His mom gripped me tight, and when she pulled away she told me, “When Chris didn’t have a friend in the world, he had his mentor. Thank you.”

His grandma, eyes puffy, conveyed relief that I had been in touch with his first mentor, “I’ve been thinking about her and wondering if she knew. Tell her we’re doing okay, tell her that please.” And as we embraced, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It was a really heavy first day.

A big-hearted friend of mine recently joked that he wouldn’t want my job because I have to work with people I care about. And there’s some truth to his observation; it can be tough to work with kids like Chris, to see bad things happen to the vulnerable children we serve. Social work isn’t always easy to leave at the office. But on a very sad day, Chris’s mom and grandma reminded me of the beauty of this work.

Chris had a good friend through some of the toughest times in his short life. And that makes this mentoring endeavor so valuable.

There’s a different kind of meaning that comes along with the work we do in Moab. And while my time in this desert town isn’t always the carefree adventure of a climbing road trip, perhaps I need both types of meaning in this crazy life. Play and work, personal endeavors and helping others, happiness and sadness, love and loss.

It’s life.

It’s beautiful.

And it’s not to be taken for granted.

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A Story of Honor

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Yesterday, 22-year-old Zach Taylor, a graduate of Grand County High School and student at the University of Utah, died in a rappelling accident. Zach’s kind father happens to be a volunteer for the mentoring program I oversee. I know nothing about the circumstances of Zach’s death, except what his mother shared in a public Facebook update:

“I had the most amazing day with my son, Zach Taylor on Saturday. It was just the two of us, and our dog Ubu, going on an adventure. I didn’t realize it would be part of a goodbye. He died yesterday while hiking and rappelling with friends, doing what he loved to do most. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I call him, unabashedly, my favorite child. And his siblings handled my favoritism well, because they admitted that he, too, was their favorite sibling. Zach was pure energy. May he continue to be so in this next life as well.”

Many people decry risky pursuits as selfish (such as canyoneering deep in the backcountry). Yet Zach’s mother handles the circumstances with utter understanding. In fact, her online elegy flies in the face of a recent blog post by Steve Casimiro. In this post, Steve wrote:

“‘Hey, Glenn,’ I said to my partner. ‘If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.’ He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.

“Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.

“Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.”

Meanwhile, Zach’s mother seems to take solace from the fact that her son died doing something he loved, even if that act resulted in disaster, possibly from a mistake. And why shouldn’t she? Naturally, life is preferable, but isn’t it better that her son died in a climbing accident rather than from, say, a random dose of food poisoning? He died in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wild canyons of adventure. Regardless of whether the accident was preventable or not, Zach was doing something he loved, probably riding high.

CanyonEvery adventurer who knowingly (but not recklessly) risks the ultimate cost has earned my respect. So too have hobbyists of mellower pursuits. They have all chosen causes that transcend the mundane requirements of life through bowling and playing music… or mountains and big waves and dirt bikes and BASE jumping and riding horses, because life would otherwise mean too little. I honor their selection of the right tools to make meaning for themselves. I honor them by calling death untimely but not tragedy. Sad? Yes. Are we bereft of good people like Zach? Yes. But I will not dishonor my friend’s big life choice that put her forever under an avalanche in the Himalaya or Michael Reardon’s soloing pursuit that put him under the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Their decisions did not end in senseless deaths. No, they resulted in lives powerfully lived, albeit shorter than most.

I salute also those who recognize in others the primacy of instinct. Apparently Zach always loved to climb. His mother, still perfectly unapologetic about her son’s native spirit, went on to share a Facebook link to this story of his childhood:

“A couple of months into school I was asked to visit with his teacher. It seems that Zach was getting in trouble for climbing. He climbed the fences. He climbed the walls. He climbed onto the roof. He climbed onto the top of the swingset. He climbed onto the top of the slide where you’re not supposed to climb.

“The teacher told me all of this very emphatically with a scowl and furrowed brows. I nodded, listened. Inside I was thinking how incredibly adventurous my son was and was giving him a mental high five. Perhaps reading my thoughts, she decided to scold me like she had been scolding him, ‘Don’t you know how dangerous that could be? He could fall!’

“I said I would talk with him. And I did.

“‘Don’t climb at school.’

“And then I bought him a membership at a local climbing gym.”

I’m glad Zach’s mother hasn’t dishonored her son by labeling his passions selfish. Every pursuit (and every act) is fundamentally selfish, unless it happens to coincidentally benefit others. It’s nobody’s fault that some hobbies are more dangerous than others. I can blame nobody for the fact that beach volleyball doesn’t tickle me. And therefore, I allow others to chart their crazy courses as best they can without my passing judgment on the roots of their desire.

While some may argue about what is or isn’t an acceptable level of risk, I hope the people who love Zach will do his memory the courtesy of recognizing his decisions as central to the tenets of the person he was. I will celebrate the life he lived even though I didn’t know him.

BoulderingAnd if I die rock climbing or mountain biking or on an adventure, I hope my family and friends take comfort from the idea that I died doing something I loved. It will require a big mistake or an act of god to snuff out this life – which, by the way, could also occur on the interstate – because I do want to live. I am careful out there, by my definition of the word. I want to climb and laugh and hug another day. But if some hazard, whether objective or subjective, takes me out, please be consoled by the fact that it happened when I was seeking that which makes life meaningful.

If I die from botulism, though, feel free to call it tragedy.

So yes. I ask you, those whom I love, to take care while in pursuit of your dreams. I want to share in future adventures. I want to hear about the meaning you’ve made using the tools and variables at your disposal. And I hope you will forgive me if I judge your life well lived regardless of how it might end but rather by the light of your inspiration.

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