Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Is It Time to Reconcile?

The two brothers could not look each other in the eye.  The older one did most of the talking, but all the while stared across the law firm’s boardroom table, past the people sitting opposite him, and out the 27th floor window.  It was as if he wanted to be somewhere far away, anywhere but in that room arguing about his father’s estate.

The younger brother, obviously the prodigal son who didn’t make it home to receive the “blessing” before his father died, constantly shifted in the expensive leather chair, played with the pen in his hand and looked down at the blank pad of paper in front of him.  He was nervous and uncomfortable as he was underdressed for the occasion. 
The siblings had different mothers, both divorced from their deceased father.  Largely through the choices of others, they shared little in common except the blood of their father flowing through their veins.  It was the estate of their father that brought them together, at least physically, into the same room.  It was the same discussion that drove them apart, tearing scabs off old scars and creating new wounds.  As harsh words were spoken by the lawyers representing each of the half-brothers, I wondered what their father would’ve thought had he been there.  Unintentionally, he had made a bequest to them of bitterness.  The boys, now emboldened and brash in the absence of their father, battled over money.  It was all that was left.

I had seen the drama dozens of times, just with different players.  Beneficiaries clinging to that which they felt entitled, even if it meant villainizing members of the family who remained.  In this case, the brotherly brawl had been bubbling to a boil for some time, both boys trash talking each other through the one person that separated them, the referee, their father.  With him gone, the half-brothers leaned into the long-anticipated fight fueled by anger and grief, loss and potential gain, feelings of guilt and entitlement.  The father had left a legacy of broken relationships that money could not heal.

Despite the fact that Parkinson’s disease is not typically fatal, it does bring one face-to-face with one’s mortality.  Perhaps it is because through PD one begins experiencing a sense of accelerated loss.  What do we do with the nagging reminder that life is fragile and fleeting?  I try to ignore it sometimes, like refusing to face the reality some mornings that I have to get out of bed.  Those mornings I feel like hitting the “snooze” button, burrowing under my blankets, closing my eyes and pretending that the demands and conflicts of the day don’t exist.  Hopelessly, I deny my reality. 
When it is my turn to bid farewell to my friends and family, will it ignite a powder keg of discontent?  Will my passing leave behind harmony or discord?  What can I do now to promote peace?  Reconciliation is a difficult journey to begin, let alone complete.  In truth, it may be an ongoing, sometimes painful, process without a certain conclusion.  It requires courage.  Like grasping the nettle, one must be prepared to withstand its sting.  To let it go is to suffer the bite but leave the weed to flourish.  If we are to sow seeds of peace and reconciliation, we must be prepared and persistent. 
How to start?  Begin by asking the right questions, and answering them honestly.  Whom have I wronged?  Who has hurt me?  Are there loved ones that I ache to see reconciled?  How do I begin being an agent of amity?  How can I convert conflict to concord?

From my experience and observations I have learned some things:
  • 1.     Embarking on a path of reconciliation demands humility.  That may mean a sincere apology or an admission of inadequacy.
  • 2.     The speed with which relational repairs take place will be determined consensually.  One’s own agenda and time frame cannot be imposed without imperiling the process.
  • 3.     One must be prepared to maintain consistency in commitments to restoring harmony in relationships.  Be prepared to have your motives challenged.
  • 4.     Healing of past hurts may result in more pain.  Tearing the scab from an old wound or a bandage from one hidden under it is likely to hurt...a lot.

The two brothers did not reconcile.  Each called “justice” to their aid, but the sadness in their eyes told me it gave them no comfort to be “right”.  Of course, the lawyers, trained for the battle, would fight on, continuing as they must to follow instructions and ultimately divide the spoils, remaining the only ultimate “victors”.  In litigation, every party loses.  It is only a matter of how much.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Are You a Person of Interest?

Have you ever Googled your own name and been amazed by the results?

My grandfather was not an intensely private person.  Nor was he a public figure.  However, he was known and respected in the small community of Vernon, British Columbia, Canada.  His name does not appear on the Internet.  My father followed his father’s footsteps, building on his reputation.  He was known for his hard work and respected for his integrity in the growing community.  But his reputation was not based on any notoriety.  There is little mention of him on the Internet.  When I was growing up in Vernon it was still a small town of under 10,000 people.  Despite similar upbringings as my forefathers, for better or for worse, my life story, the details of my work and even aspects of my private life are available at the present a button.  They may be researched by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet.  What difference does that make?
“Person of Interest” is an award-winning television program that highlights the pervasive nature and potential of the computerized surveillance we have on this very un-private planet.  The original season started with this description:

"You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up... we'll find you".

When one simply looks around at the proliferation of security cameras and readily available personal information, this fictional drama series seems eerily close to reality.
A recent TED Talk by Jeff Hancock called “The Future of Lying” suggests that because of the ability to trace our deeds, our words, our stories, communicated by technological means we are more likely to be truthful.  The fact that our lives, to a greater or lesser extent, are captured and converted to data that can be retained indefinitely means that we can be caught “lying” more easily than ever before.

Like it or not, each of us is unwittingly writing a comprehensive autobiography comprised of digital information readily available to anyone and everyone.  As in “Person of Interest”, this information may be accurate or misleading, used for good or evil, but there is no escaping the fact that it exists.
As a person with Parkinson’s disease, I feel confronted with the reality that, whether I write this blog or seek to escape into obscurity, I am writing my own story, recording my own self-titled, digitized song.  Perhaps it shouldn’t matter, but the fact that my “life story” will be more public than the histories of my father or grandfather leads me to ask, “What kind of story will it be?”

Will the predominant theme of my story be ‘me’ or others?  Will it be characterized by self-indulgence or self-sacrifice?

Who will have benefited from my life?  Who will have been harmed by the way I have lived?

Will I have fought for the right or silently condoned the wrong?  If the truth were known (as it may well be) will I have lived with integrity, courage and grace?  Or will I be seen as having given in to a value-neutral, insipid and hypocritical attitude?

When my digital footprints on this globe are accurately assembled, will the journey they mark out have been worthwhile?  When my less-than-perfect pathway has been technologically memorialized for others to view, will it be worth following?  Will I have lived intentionally, or by simply existed accident?

When someone Googles my life and struggles with PD, my highs and lows, will the results encourage others or leave them with a sense of hopelessness?

We may not ask these questions of ourselves, but others will surely ask them for us.  Our lives do matter.  Each of us is inevitably a “Person of Interest”.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lest We Forget

It was typically a cold day on November 11th.  Each year by 10:30 AM, a variegated crowd had gathered in Cenotaph Park located in the centre of my home town.  The park was simply and correctly named; the focus of attention being on the only structure in the park, the gray concrete cenotaph.  It stood some 10 feet tall and, other than inscriptions referencing the Great War, World War II and the Korean conflict, its only adornments were brass plaques filled with names.  There were 192 in total; all men.  What surprised me then (and more so now) was that 124 of them, fully two thirds, died in the First World War.  The population of my small town at the beginning of that war was around 3000 people.  Assuming 25% were men eligible to fight, one of six did not return from the trenches of Europe.  Although the word “cenotaph” literally means “empty tomb”, it notionally represented the final resting place for many a World War I hero.
I was there, more from a sense of duty than desire, with a few other Cubs and Scouts who had gathered in our uniforms, which were mostly covered up by winter parkas.  I begrudged spending even a small portion of a school holiday shivering in the cold looking ridiculous in my Boy Scout uniform.  The sea cadets looked better than we did as they had the benefit of woolen, navy blue pea coats.  Our only role that morning was to stand at attention and make our three fingered salute as old men tenderly carried wreaths to lay on the cenotaph steps.  Having no soldiers in my family I did not understand the tears that escaped the deeply saddened eyes and crept down those wrinkled faces of the old soldiers that passed by.  The old men stood weeping as the Last Post trumpet solo mournfully moved through the pine trees in the park.  Although I did not understand it, I never doubted that the pain they felt was real and the memories vivid.  It was only later, through my son who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, that I began to understand how a sense of undeserving and guilt broke through the veneer of battle hardened hearts at times like that. 
The idea of sacrifice seems foreign to most of us today.  It is so easily misunderstood in this “I” culture.  We have become sceptics who question the concept of sacrifice.  Self-interest reigns supreme.  But can it be said that anything worthwhile is achieved without sacrifice?  Surely, the more valuable the virtue, the more meaningful the endeavour, the greater the sacrifice that must be made.  “Sacrifice” can be defined as the gift of something precious as an offering in exchange for something even more valuable. 
What makes a sacrifice worthwhile?  Undoubtedly, an essential consequence of any sacrifice of significance is that it be remembered.  “Lest We Forget” is the refrain of the 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem, “Recessional”.  It was a warning against a prideful attitude of forgetfulness about the sacrifices of those who won our privileges.  Let me quote the third stanza:

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget.

Worthy goals will always be won by sacrifice, and lost by failing to remember that. 
Today we are called to remember the sacrifices of those who fought for us and the greatest values known to humanity.  The words of Martin Luther King Jr. echo my sentiment.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Power of Personal Pronouns

Commencement Address - November 3, 2012 - Trinity Western University

 It was January 19, 2006, a Thursday.  Vancouver was chilly, but not really cold.  And it was dry for a change.  All in all, not a bad day for the “Wet Coast”.  I had no warning that it would be a critically important day in my life. 

It was the day I was told I had Parkinson’s disease.  I was 53 years old, at the height of my legal career.  I was doing what I loved and felt that I was making a difference, like leading the Trinity Western legal team and its successful battle all away to the Supreme Court of Canada..  I was part of a thriving law firm and a tremendous team of legal professionals, trusted problem solvers working with the best clients any lawyer could ask for.

Life had not been without incidents, but none of them had left permanent scars.  I had experienced an idyllic upbringing in the countryside apple orchards near Vernon, British Columbia.  My parents were the best I could have asked for.  My siblings and extended family put up with me more than most would have done.  In 1970, God brought me to what was then Trinity Junior College, where I found a much deeper faith, a love for learning, an opportunity to serve in student leadership and a chance to play collegiate sports, not to mention meeting the wonderful woman that I have now been happily married to more than 38 years.  I had three kids, each of whom has been a special gift to us.  In addition, I had, and still have, wise and caring mentors like Dr Jim Houston and Benno Friesen.  I had, and still have, friends who I knew I could depend on, regardless, and lifelong accountability partners in David Bentall and Carson Pue.

Life had been pretty much a dream come true until that day in 2006.  When Renae and I walked out of the neurologist’s office that day, I was surprisingly calm (maybe in full-blown denial, but calm).  I somehow knew something special was in process.  My life was not a dream that was becoming a nightmare.  Certainly, there was fear, but there was also excitement and anticipation.  I felt totally inadequate for the challenges that lay ahead, but I also felt completely at peace.  Somehow, I knew God was in this.  He was opening my eyes in ways I could never have imagined, providing perspective and opportunities that could only be achieved through my loss, my weakness, my failure.

January 19, 2006, was the day I began to learn a secret: the difference between illness and wellness.  Let me come back to that.

I had known a fair amount about Parkinson’s disease before 2006.  My father had suffered from the disease, and ultimately died from its complications in 2009.  It’s a complicated disease, and every one of its 10 million “victims” worldwide seems to experience it differently.

Besides being a progressively, degenerative, neurological disease for which there is no known cure it has a variety of debilitating manifestations.  Its most typical symptoms are a tremor, stiffness, loss of balance, a shuffling gait and other motor malfunctions.  But along with those are a kaleidoscope of potential non-motor consequences such as incredible fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and possibly, the scariest of all, loss of cognitive function.  And then, as if to add variety, there are unusual side effects for some people with Parkinson’s.  For instance, my startle reflex became heightened, I stopped swinging my right arm when I walked, and I lost my sense of smell.  For others, they develop an emotionless blank stare called the Parkinson’s mask, or their speech becomes slurred and other unmentionable functions don’t function so well.
But, as serious as these aspects of PD may be, there are other more soul-crushing things that I’ve learned about the disease.

Parkinson’s is a self-isolating disease.  In the beginning stages, it’s hard work to try and hide your tremor so that people won’t look at you wondering what’s wrong and why you’re shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.  As the disease progresses and the tremor can no longer be disguised, it can become just downright uncomfortable being around others.  Our society does not respond very well to people with sickness we can’t see, let alone those with visible illness and disability.  We just don’t know what to say to a person who is unable to control his shaking.
So for most people with PD it is much easier to be alone, avoiding the questioning stares of people who can’t really understand.
Big social gatherings demand a lot from people with Parkinson’s.  As the adrenaline starts pumping it somehow turns up the amplification on your tremor.  As the shaking increases, your self-confidence decreases and you look for a place to hide.

For many people with Parkinson’s, as with other diseases, their world shrinks.  Many prefer to be alone.  Others remain behind closed doors due to the lack of mobility, energy, interest or just because of embarrassment or inertia.

As I began to notice my own propensity to withdraw I began to listen to the words that people with Parkinson’s were using.  I began to see the importance of pronouns.

Let me try and demonstrate what I mean by requesting a little audience participation.

Before everyone heads for the exits, rest assured that what I will ask you to do is easy and not embarrassing.  Please help me out here.  Could everybody either close their eyes or focus on an inanimate object in the room.  I do not mean the person sleeping next to you!  Now say the word “I” out loud?  Next, could everyone say the word “you”?  Now, finally, could everyone say the word “we”?
As you spoke those words, what did you think about?  What did you feel?  For most of you, when you said “I” you thought about yourself.  And when you said “you”, you likely thought of a particular person.  You might’ve even visualized someone.  And when you said “we” you likely thought of some group that you identified with; people in this auditorium, family, teammates, dorm mates, classmates, friends.

In 2011, social psychologist and language expert, James Pennebaker, wrote “The Secret Life of Pronouns”.  It’s about what our language says about us.  But it also demonstrates the power of personal pronouns. 
“I”, “my”, “me” are three of the 20 most commonly used words in the English language.  Let’s just focus on “I”.  The word “I” is by far the most commonly used personal pronoun, and it’s moving up the list based on more current studies of word usage.

“I” is used considerably more (almost twice as much in some studies) by people who are depressed or insincere.  Conversely, it is not used very often by truly self-confident leaders.

Now that may seem logical, but not only does the use of particular pronouns tell you something about others (and yourself), but studies show that consciously reducing your use of words like “I”, “my” and “me” can improve the way you think and feel about yourself and the world around you.

Changing one’s personal pronoun usage is more difficult than you think.  Most people have an overwhelming propensity to want to talk about themselves.  Let me give you a recent example.  Carson Pue and I just completed a 75 day, six continent, 17 country, 50,000 km trip around the world.  At one point on the trip we were on the train from Cuzco, high up in the Peruvian Andes, to the extraordinary ruins of Machu Picchu.  Seated near us on the train were a number of younger travelers from Australia and England.
We decided to try an experiment.  The goal was to test how much we could get our fellow travelers to talk about themselves without disclosing virtually anything about ourselves.  By the end of the two hour train trip Carson and I knew virtually the whole life story of a number of the travelers seated next to us.  They knew virtually nothing about us.  No names, no life history, no special circumstances.

Try it sometime.  What you will find interesting is that the person you speak with goes away from the conversation enjoying the experience and thinking you are a great conversationalist.  Listen carefully to the language being used.  The person you are speaking to will typically use the pronoun, “I”, a great deal.  In asking questions of that person you will use the pronoun, “you”. 

How did we become so self-absorbed?  As with some of you, I was born into the postwar baby boomer “you can have it all” generation.  The generation that stood up against authority and insisted upon personal rights.  It was the generation that dropped out and disappeared into a dope induced, feel good, psychedelic haze.  It was the generation of “free love”, freedom to choose, live and let live, do your own thing.  It was the first recognizable “me generation”.  And every subsequent generation seems to have built upon that self-oriented foundation.

Case in point: Who would’ve guessed in the 1960s that the icon of our society, it’s most popular “smart” phone is called the… IPhone!

Consider the manifestations of “I”.  Self-importance, self-esteem, self worth, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self absorption and self service.  No wonder I thought the world was about me. 
What is the pronoun?  A “pronoun” is really nothing other than a shorthand/replacement for a name or names.  If you want to cut down on the number of times that you use the word “I” “me” or “my”, imagine that every time you use one of those pronouns you say your name.  For example, I might say in response to your question, “How are you?”: “I’m doing fine, thank you.  I just returned from my around the world trip that I did with my friend.  I had a fantastic time.”  Without pronouns my response becomes, “Bob is doing fine, thank you.  Bob just returned from Bob’s around the world trip that Bob did with Bob’s friend.  Bob had a fantastic time.”  It’s not hard to say who is the focus of that discussion!

Pronouns are perhaps the most powerful words in the English language.  Not only do they betray our thoughts and deepest convictions, they can shape our thinking.  Listen to someone speak.  How many times do they use the word “I”, “you”, or “we”?  Just using the word “I”, that single syllable pronoun, leads the listener and the speaker to think in certain ways.  “I” is exclusive.  “It’s all about me”.  “You” is also exclusive.  Only the word “we” is inclusive.  It draws a circle around us. 

In 1968 Harry Edward Nilsson III wrote a song that became a testimonial to our generation.  All too typical of our generation, he was raised by a single mom, his father having walked out on his family when Harry was three years old.  Harry left school after grade 9 and pursued a music career.  He became one of the most famous songwriters in America, sought after by the Beatles, Monkeys, and other well-known musicians, he became a two-time Grammy award winner.  But success took its toll.  Alcohol, drugs, failed financial investments, and ripoffs, seemed to lead to his death in 1994.  He was 53.  Same age I was diagnosed with PD.

One of the most famous songs that he wrote was composed in its entirety while he listened to the busy signal he got after calling a friend on the telephone.  That was before the age of call waiting, call display, voicemail, texting and email.  You might remember the song was later made famous by “Three Dog Night”.  Its lyrics are prophetically applicable today.  It expresses the loneliness and futility of life lived for oneself, the loneliness of “I”.

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
Two can be as bad as one
It’s the loneliest number since the number one
No is the saddest experience you’ll ever know
Yes, it’s the saddest experience you’ll ever know
One is the loneliest number”
This brings me to my closing remarks on graduation and balancing pronouns.  Consider these phrases:

1.    “I did it!”  And you did.  It took commitment to a goal, dedication and hard work, using the gifts and resources God gave you.

2.     “Thank you!”  You did not do it alone.  Others encouraged you, enabled you, helped you.  Humanly speaking, nothing good can ever be accomplished alone.  There are always others to be thanked.

3.     “We are in this together!”  Your graduating class is forever linked, joined together as a “we”.  It is very likely that members of your class will impact your future in remarkable ways.  And today you have joined more than 24,000 other graduates of Trinity Western.  We are the fruit of this university’s labor.  We are its alumni.  Trinity cannot thrive without its alumni.  We, together, will determine its future success.  We, together, must remain strongly rooted in the truth we learned here.  And we must reach out to serve the world around us.

Whether your future is filled with success or struggle, dignity or disaster, remember the power of personal pronouns.  And remember that God calls us to live in community, “we”.  Jesus could have done it alone.  He had no need for a mother and father, brothers and sisters.  No need for disciples who would constantly fail him.  No need for a church filled with people who constantly mess up the message.  But he modeled “we”.  He planned for us to be in community.

And the final lesson, one that I’m still learning, the change in thinking that started from my diagnosis almost 7 years ago and teaches me daily:

What is the difference between illness and wellness?

Illness begins with “I”.  But wellness starts with “we”.