A Little Girl, A BIG Red Balloon And A Radiant Reminder of What Being “Beautiful” is All About

girl with red balloon

beau·ti·ful [byoo-tuh-fuh l] (adjective) – possessing qualities that give great pleasure or satisfaction to see, hear, think about, etc.; delighting the senses or mind.

By now you’ve likely seen the link to the so-called “Dove Experiment” that is making the rounds on social media.  Apparently inspired by the mind-numbing statistic that accompanies the post (i.e,  that “only 4% of women around the world consider themselves to be beautiful”), the ingenious folks at Dove retained the services of a retired forensic artist to prove a point, namely that women are far more critical of their own appearance, specifically their facial features, than even other women are of them!   And, as evidenced by the sketches that resulted when the two groups were asked to describe the same face – and the tears that flowed from those faces when the women were confronted with their “self-harshness” – Dove did just that!  The video is quite moving and its implications are profound and important.  Respectfully, however, it leaves several important questions unanswered: Where do these negative self-perceptions come from?  Against what standards are these women self-evaluating?  How do we begin to take steps to ensure that our daughters and other loved ones are not part of a similar “experiment” and shedding those same tears 5 or 10 years from now?

Because here’s the troubling reality:  As disturbing as the 4% figure in the Dove piece is – and, make no mistake, it’s deeply disturbing – I believe it also is grossly overstated!  The fact is:  In my 54 years occupying this planet, I don’t think I’ve ever met a single woman who, if asked, would say that she considered herself to be beautiful – and, over the years, I’ve met (and I continue to meet) many beautiful women.  Conversely, if you were to ask women (and, again, I’m talking about 99% (if not 100%) – not just 96% – of all women) if there is a physical feature or characteristic about themselves that they wish they could change, all of them would readily find at least one thing, if not several.  Ask them why they would change those things, however, and the response is not likely to be as quick.  I know, because I did just that yesterday with a young attorney friend, who recently celebrated her 33rd birthday.  She not only is a great person, she is beautiful.  And yet, she will tell you she’s one of the 100% (i.e., there are things about her that, given the chance, she would change and she certainly doesn’t “consider herself beautiful”).  Ironically, she was the one who insisted that I see the Dove spot.  We chatted about it at some length in anticipation of this post and I presented her with the following:

“If I were to go out on the street right now and select 50 men at random – of all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds and ethnicities – and ask for a showing of hands as to how many of them think you’re beautiful, I am 100% CERTAIN that every hand would go up, without a moment’s hesitation.  I’m equally CERTAIN that if I did the same thing in 50 different states and 100 different cities, I would get the same response – with a possible exception or two (allowing for the fact that since the cross-section is completely random, we might stumble upon one or two blind people!).”  At this point she was blushing a bit, while simultaneously trying to allow herself to ponder the prospect that I might be speaking the truth.  “Here’s what I’d like to know,” I asked: “If I were to do that and the results turned out the way I expect, would it move the needle?  Would you be any more likely to consider yourself beautiful?”  She paused for a moment and then, ever the honest one, conceded it (and she) wouldn’t!  “What then is the standard?” I asked. “Is it other women, because I’m fairly confident they would reach the same conclusion as the men.”  “I don’t think so,” she said.  “I guess I just compare myself to other women and wish I had some of what they have . . .”

How do we start to move away from all of this – men and women?  My cut:  We’re looking in the “wrong mirrors” to assess our beauty and, in turn, to define our self-worth.  It’s probably easier for me to say and think that, given the fact that I don’t have a chance in the mirror.  After all, I have a really big head. I’m not talking about big in an egocentric, swollen kind of way. I’m talking about geometrically disproportionate-to-the-rest-of-my-body big. I’m talking about make-a-child-party-hat-look-like-the-size-of-a-snow-cone-cup-on-a-basketball big. I’m talking about don’t-bother-trying-to-buy-me-a-hat-because-it-will-never-fit big. I also happen to be one of the only people on the planet to have been born with an “upside-down” smile.  And then there’s the “small” issues relating to my ears (one of which is slightly lower than the other), my legs (one of which is shorter than the other), my eyebrows (one of which is higher than the other) and my shoulders (which, truth be told, are more than a little on the “relaxed” side, as opposed to being squared as I’ve repeatedly been told “they should be”).  Bottom line:  If studied too closely, I’m a veritable “mess” in the mirror, which probably accounts for the fact that come next year I will be left off of People Magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People” list for what will be the 55th consecutive time!

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll be the last person on Earth to trivialize body image issues or the obvious power they have to influence the lives and behaviors of others, especially women.  I am, however, convinced that the path to feeling good (okay, I’ll settle for better) about ourselves and, ultimately, to true happiness depends on our willingness and ability to care less about the reflection we see in the bathroom mirror each morning and more about the reflections we create in the sometimes radiant, often tear-filled eyes of those whose lives we touch with gifts that will never be captured by a mirror—gifts of friendship, kindness, trust, compassion, empathy, encouragement, understanding — even the simple gift of our mere presence and our willingness to listen.  How can I be so certain? I’m certain because I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to see those reflections dozens of times in my own life—and, not surprisingly, none of them had anything to do with the size of my head, the shape of my smile, the levelness of my ears or the length of my legs.  In fact, I saw it again this past Saturday, when I politely arranged for an adorable little girl to get a BIG red balloon at Chick-fil-a!  That simple gesture, made anonymously to a complete stranger, led to a smile that lit up the entire restaurant – a smile that reminded me: “You know what, Don, you’re beautiful!”  There, I said it . . .


“Listen Up!”


There were a lot of things I enjoyed about coaching little league baseball: the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of highly impressionable young people;  the chance to stay connected to and teach a game that I had loved since I was a little boy (likely because it meant spending time with my own dad); the competition, even if, more seasons than not, my teams, some of which were quite talented, ended up with “less than stellar” won/loss records; the challenge and satisfaction that came along with building and then being the leader of a team; and the smell of freshly mown grass on a beautiful Saturday morning.  But those who know me best will quickly tell you that the thing I liked most about coaching were the pre-game, between inning and post-game dug-out “speeches” – what I like to refer to as my “Knute Rockne moments.”  I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a cheerleader at heart. Whether it was on the baseball diamond, at the dinner table, in the recital hall or at the office, I seldom passed on an opportunity to try and inspire.  And, I think, at times, I was reasonably good at it – or so I was told.  In fact, many of the people I was charged with the responsibility of firing at my old firm would later tell me they left my office feeling as if our letting them go “was the best thing that ever happened to them!”

I remember one little league game in particular.  It was the 1992 HPKL Atom II All-Star Game at Suniland Park.  Despite the fact that my team had a mostly forgettable season (we wound up 2-12), 3 of my players were selected to play on the Eastern Division team and I, in turn, was invited to be one of the assistant coaches.  I’ll never forget that day – the unusually large crowd filling the bleachers and spilling over onto the surrounding sidewalks and several spectators deep along each of the foul lines; the excitement and sense of anticipation that was in the air; and, most of all, the joy and enthusiasm that was on the doughnut and Sunny Delight fueled faces of the Eastern Division All-Stars as they raced onto the field to start the game.  I also will never forget the looks of disbelief and defeat on those same faces as they dragged their butts off the field 20 minutes later after a barrage of hits by their Western Division rivals combined with several uncharacteristic fielding errors, likely triggered by nerves, led to a 10-0 first inning deficit.  Our coaches had similar looks on their faces, which, I suppose, is why they turned to me (that and their knowing I’d found myself in that same position many times during the year) to try and help breathe new life into the situation.  “I need everyone in the dugout!” I shouted – and, once assembled, my trademark: “Listen up . . .”

Obviously, I can’t remember what I said verbatim, but I recall it went something like this:

“I’m seeing a lot of long faces on this bench.  In fact, I hardly recognize you guys as the same team that took the field just 20 minutes ago.  How many of you think we’ve already lost this game? (Heads down, all hands sheepishly raised, one at a time).  Well, you’re wrong – we haven’t!  It’s only the first ½ inning – there are 7 more innings to be played.  Let me ask you another question: Who wants to be part of the biggest comeback in the history of the HPKL All-Star Game?!? (Eye contact, several inquisitive looks (coaches included), even a smile or two – and, once again, all hands are raised. Goal established.)  Here’s how we’re going to do that (Head Coach, curious, joins the meeting).  I don’t want to get all the runs back in this first inning (there are some advantages to being the only adult in the room(reverse psychology 101).  That will just motivate them.  I want them to keep thinking they’re “all that” – to stay cocky and over-confident.  Instead, we’re going to score a couple of runs each inning, tighten up our defense in the field to keep them from scoring, then we’re going to take the lead in the bottom of the 6th inning, shut them down in the 7th and win this game!  Are you with me? (All hands shoot up. Excitement and anticipation return. Pathways to success defined and agreed to).”

Remarkably, the game played out precisely as I had HOPED.  “We” took a two run lead in the bottom of the 6th.  In their final at bat, the West All-Stars scored one run and, with two out and men on first and second, their best hitter hit a line drive to right field, typically the fielding position where teams try to “hide” their least talented player.  Unbeknownst to the opposing third base coach, however, I had “snuck” my regular season shortstop and arguably our team’s best player out there at the start of the inning on a hunch.   As the runner from second rounded third on the hit to left, the coach fully expected to tie the game and, at worst, send it into extra-innings.  I remember the grin breaking across my lips as Brian cleanly fielded the drive on one hop and threw a perfect strike to home plate, where our catcher snagged it and applied the game-winning tag!  I wish everyone could have seen the pure joy that exploded in the hearts of each of the players on that little baseball field when the home plate umpire screamed “You’re OUT!”  More importantly, I wish all of us (the players, the coaches, the parents and the spectators) would have understood the significance of what all of us had been a part of that very special May morning.  Though none of us realized it at the time, we had witnessed Professor Snyder’s “hope” theory in action.

The truth is: that All-Star game is a microcosm of many of our lives.  We start the “game” with a great of deal of enthusiasm, full of life, eager to see what waits for us around every corner – confident that our dreams will come true.  And then, the unexpected happens.  It puts a small chink in our armor or, worse yet, knocks us completely off our stride.  Fear and self-doubt, the precursors to hopelessness, gain a foothold in our souls, as does our sense that “defeat” is imminent.  If we’re incredibly well-adjusted and put-together, we may have a chance of righting the ship ourselves and getting back on track.  More likely, however, we will need a “coach” (or two) – someone we trust implicitly or, better yet, a trained professional who can help us to: (1) set some goals; (2) discern the pathways to achieving them; and (3) be there to support, encourage and hold us accountable for remaining on those paths.  That’s where you and I come in.  We’re all in this together folks.  We need to be sensitive to the seeds of hopelessness in those around us, before they find fertile ground.  We need to be “educators” that hope is an acquired skill. And most of all, we need to be “encouragers” – purveyors of hope – in helping to motivate others to “initiate and sustain” the pathways that will lead them to their realization of their goals and dreams.  It’s never too late – even if it’s 10-0!

Pursuing Hope – One Purposeful Step At A Time


In Chapter 15 of my book, “Dear Ashley . . .” – A Father’s Reflections and Letters to His Daughter on Life, Love and Hope, I explore the concept of hope in the context of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster that left 33 men trapped beneath nearly ½ mile of rock and debris 2,300 feet below the surface of the Earth for more than 69 days at the San José copper/gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile. There are many compelling aspects of the story, including the ingenuity and technology that ultimately led to their rescue, but what is far more intriguing to me is that there was anyone left to rescue, let alone everyone, given that the miners had been trapped for 17 days after the mine collapsed, before those on the surface were first able to bore a narrow shaft to their location that enabled rescuers to provide the miners with the essentials of life (i.e., water, food, etc.) and, later, a vital means of communicating with relatives, loved ones and other supporters on the surface, while engineers worked out the complex details that ultimately would lead to their rescue.

It is particularly intriguing when you consider, among other things that: (1) the 33 men who arrived for work on that fateful day were virtual strangers to one another from wildly disparate backgrounds, who ranged in age from 19 to 64 and in mining experience from veritable novices to those with more than 52 years of service; (2) the men had the benefit of only a 48- to 96-hour emergency supply of food, which reportedly consisted of 15 cans of tuna, scraps of daily-rotting leftovers, some ultra-pasteurized milk and oil-tainted potable water; (3) the temperatures in the mine following the collapse hovered around 100 ̊ F; and (4) the breathable air in the small 500 sq. ft. space that the men occupied, left unreplenished, would not sustain life indefinitely. And yet, in spite of all of this, we know that, within 24 hours of the collapse, these men began working together as a team fixated on a common goal – survival. That they did so, under such extreme stress and with no reasonable basis for believing they would ever get out of the mine alive, is almost inexplicable save for the fact that for all of their dissimilarities, the men had one gift in common – as human beings, each harbored a seed of hope.

For some, that seed of hope had been germinated long before they ever set foot in the mine that August morning, either through life circumstances that demanded its active presence or simply as a by-product of their unwavering faith in God. In others, the seed, though dormant due to their youth, lack of life experience or simply good fortune, likely required only a minimal amount of prodding and encouragement to spring forth into life and begin to take root. Still others almost certainly had long since buried their seeds beneath layers of disappointment, heartache, frustration, rejection, and unfulfilled or shattered dreams. If they had faith, it had long since been displaced by fear or a sense of abandonment. For them, the journey to re-discovering and embracing what was left of their fragile seeds of hope would become a virtual tug-of-war waged between their heart’s fundamental desire to join their fellow miners in believing that a new and brighter tomorrow was waiting just over the horizon and their mind’s eye, whose once-clear view of that horizon had been obscured by what it perceived to be the seemingly never-ending, painful realities of everyday life.

And yet, all achieved their singular, ultimate goal, but not without first establishing a plan, “pathways” if you will, comprised of a series of smaller, more immediately attainable goals. We’ve learned, for example, that they carefully rationed their food (one teaspoon of tuna each, first every 24 hours and then, as their supply dwindled, every 48 hours). They used available lighting (e.g., headlamps, make-shift light bulbs, headlights from vehicles in the vicinity, etc.) sparingly – as a “treat” to boost their spirits and reward themselves. They portioned the limited water they had, until, we’re told, remarkably, they found an underground stream, running off a rock that enabled them to bathe and remain hydrated. They established and adhered to a strict democracy when it came to decision-making – 17 votes carrying the day. Every hour, they honked the horn of one of the vehicles – with varying degrees of confidence that, eventually, they would be heard.  They came up with a regimented sleep schedule and “every day, at noon, [they] would pray.”

And so it is with each of us. At some point in our lives, we all encounter the darkness that invariably accompanies a sense that the metaphorical walls are caving in around us – albeit in a much less literal and dramatic way than they did that August morning around our Chilean brothers. The source of the darkness will take many forms, and its intensity and duration will vary greatly from one person to the next. For some, the darkness will emanate from rejection, abandonment, a trust breached, a love or friendship lost. For others, the darkness will be tied to physical or emotional illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a feeling of extreme inadequacy or a traumatic event. At times, the darkness will be temporary, like a morning fog, momentarily engulfing everything in its reach only to burn off hours, days or even weeks later and reveal the magnificence of the landscape beneath. On occasion, however, the darkness will seem impenetrable, all consuming, suffocating. When it does, panic will set in, as it almost certainly did in the hearts and minds of those trapped in the San José mine moments after its walls collapsed. With that panic will come a sense of desperation and helplessness.

I know, because I’ve been in that dark place many times. Even more disturbingly and heartbreakingly, I’ve seen that sense of hopelessness in my daughter’s eyes and heard it in her words, as I have in the eyes and words of countless young women in the death grip of an eating disorder, more times than I care to think about. Like them and countless others, I have flailed about in the darkness, searching for someone or something to serve as a light at the end of what often seems like an endless tunnel. Largely as a result of these experiences (and others), however, I ultimately came to a critical and liberating realization: hope is not a light that waits impatiently for our arrival at the end of that proverbial tunnel. Rather, it is the light within each of us, which, when patiently and properly nurtured, helps to illuminate and penetrate the darkness inside the tunnel so that we can navigate our own way out – one sometimes joyful, often painstaking, but always purposeful step after another.

A “Picture” Of Hope

Michaela DePrince

If you had scoured the planet in 1998, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone more “entitled” to feel hopeless than 3 year-old Mabinty Bangura.  Shortly after her father had been killed by rebel soldiers in the midst of an 11 year long civil war that ripped apart her homeland, a small West African nation (i.e., Sierra Leone) rich in natural minerals (e.g., diamonds, titanium, bauxite and gold), where 70% of the population lives in abject poverty, Mabinty’s mother contracted and died from Lassa fever (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lassa_fever).  As if that weren’t enough for one lifetime, a relative responded to these tragedies by taking Mabinty to a local orphanage where she reportedly was beaten and scorned by staff members for her “rebellious” behavior and ostracized by many of her fellow orphans due to an inherited skin condition known as vitiligo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitiligo) that resulted in prominent unpigmented spots all over the otherwise beautifully dark skin on her chest and neck.  Her caretakers believed her illness to be a “curse” – a belief that led them to label this  beautiful and obviously gifted young girl (at 3, Mabinty already could read and write Arabic!) “the devil’s child.”

And then one day, in the midst of what likely was unimaginable suffering and persecution, Mabinty found a magazine lying on the ground outside the gate of the orphanage with a picture of a beautiful ballerina dancing on point on the cover.  It’s best to just let Mabinty pick up the story from here:  “I’d never seen anything like that before, so I took the cover off and put [the picture] in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it.  I brought the rest of the magazine in to share with everybody else, but I kept the picture with me every day until I got adopted.  It kept me going and believing and looking forward to something, because I was going through so much at the time.  [Before I found the picture], I thought I was just worth nothing and [that] nothing [good was] going to happen [to me].  The person in the photograph symbolized hope for me.  It was something I hadn’t felt for such a long time.”  And adopted Mabinty and her best friend were in 1999, by Elaine DePrince and her husband, Charles.  The rest, as they say, is history or, perhaps more accurately, the still unfolding story of Mabinty Bangura, now known as Michaela DePrince, at 18 years old currently the youngest member of the highly acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem (http://www.dancetheatreofharlem.org).

It would be impossible, within the confines of this post, to catalog Michaela’s many remarkable accomplishments in the world of dance, but I commend them to your reading: http://www.dancetheatreofharlem.org/company/dancers.  It also would take too long to delve into the commitment and hard work that has gone into achieving those goals or the many other adversities that she has had to fight through to get there, though you can find out more about those on the Web as well – and watch her dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoALBdkPdMI.  For me (and for Mabinty/Michaela), what’s important is that photograph: “I’ve had bad patches,” Michaela concedes, “[times] when I wanted to quit ballet.” [But, each time,] I would say to myself this is what I’ve been dreaming of for so long, and this picture has kept me going for so long, I really need to keep trying.  Nothing else has ever made me feel like that.”  It would be a considerable understatement to say that Michaela’s story is inspirational.  But what warms my heart most about it is the possibility that somewhere in the world (e.g., an orphanage in West Africa, a tenement in the slums of Los Angeles, an addiction or eating disorder treatment facility in Philadelphia, etc.) a young girl will go to bed tonite with a slightly crumpled picture of Michaela tucked safely under her pillow.

HOPE 101 – The “Pathways” To A More Hopeful Life

Hope Sign

In explaining the inspiration for his book, The Psychology of Hope – You Can Get Here From There, C.R. Snyder, Ph.D recounted the following story:

“Whenever I go to a hospital, I try to find the window where you can see the babies who have just been born.  I don’t know which I enjoy more, looking at the newborns or soaking up the joy of the relatives viewing their offspring.  This day was different, however. I walked quickly past the baby-viewing window of the Kansas City hospital and headed to my daughter’s room.  There I met my grand-daughter for the first time. As I held her, I wanted to give her a gift. Surely I could come up with something very special for my first grandchild.  Not the usual stuffed animals and outfits, but something she could use for the rest of her life.  She should give a lasting gift from her grandfather.  It came to me that I’d like to give her hope.”

Fortunately for his granddaughter (and the rest of us!), Professor Snyder and his colleagues largely fulfilled that desire through the publication of his book and the years of research that preceded and post-dated its publication – research that was instrumental in developing a “hope theory,” which enables modern day psychologists to view HOPE as an important cognitive construct that has enormous power to facilitate healing, rather than simply as an esoteric virtue or emotion.

According to Professor Snyder, HOPE consists of three cognitive components:  (1) the ability to conceptualize goals, which serves as the centerpiece of the construct; (2) the perceived ability to develop what Professor Snyder refers to as “pathways” (i.e., specific strategies for attaining those goals); and (3) “the perception that one can muster the requisite motivation to [follow] those chosen pathways” and remain on them until the interim and ultimate goals are fully realized (a concept that Professor Snyder refers to as “agency”).  See Hope: The Imperative Human Motive, C.R. Snyder, Hal S. Shorey, Carla Berg, The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science, W. Edward Craighead and Charles B. Nemeroff (John Wiley & Sons 2004).

Interestingly, Professor Snyder and his colleagues believe that, not unlike the academic skills referenced in my last post, children can be taught to be “high-HOPE people” by “interactions with consistently responsive and supportive caregivers” (i.e., “HOPE-inducing coaches”) who “teach the child to trust in the consistency of cause and effect relationships and to trust that others will be available to lend assistance in attaining [their] personal goals.”  Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology at p. 444.

As importantly, at least from my perspective, Professor Snyder’s work provides a framework within which individuals, young and old, who have not had the benefit of those idyllic “childhood interactions,” can be taught to be more hopeful by: learning how to identify and set goals that are important to them; exploring the paths that can lead to the realization of those goals; and finding and/or being provided the encouragement they need to begin that journey and to remain committed to staying the course until they have reached those goals.

Interested in learning more?  I am!



Why Leave The ABC’s Of Matters Of The Heart To Chance?


When it comes to matters of the mind (e.g., reading, writing, arithmetic, etc.), we take almost nothing for granted where our children and young adults are concerned. We don’t assume, for example, that a child inherently knows how to solve even the most basic of mathematical equations (e.g., 1+1, 2+2, etc.), let alone that they intuitively grasp the Pythagorean Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2 – where c represents the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle and a and b represent the lengths of the other two sides) or the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder (V=πr2h). On the contrary, recognizing the complexity of these concepts, we patiently begin with what numbers look like, what their function is and how they interact with one another.  We slowly build one concept on another, making sure that each is grasped before moving on to the next. And for good reason: We understand that it’s critical that everyone have at least a working knowledge of math to be able to do many of the tasks that are an integral part of everyday life. Similarly, because we rightly appreciate the importance of being able to read and write, we go to great lengths to teach children the letters to the alphabet – one at a time – before combining them into the simplest of words and then using those to formulate basic sentences and paragraphs. We certainly don’t expect them to pick up these skills on their own, nor do we (or should we) assume that they “just know” how to convey complex thoughts in written or spoken word.

However, it seems to me we tend to take a much different, more “hands-off” approach when it comes to matters of the heart (e.g., love, courage, friendship, trust, perseverance, interpersonal conflict resolution, hope, etc.). Simply put, rather than introduce our children to the basics of these admittedly “less concrete,” but no less critical concepts at an early age and then continuing to build on and nurture those seeds by, among other things, studying the roles they have played in real life and fictional situations and in the lives of real people, we tend to assume that our children are either born with or will “magically” and experientially develop an understanding of such things as they get older and more mature – or both. The net result? Let’s be frank. I’m pretty much willing to bet everything I own (which admittedly is not much at the moment, but you get the point!) that if I were to randomly select 100 young people between the ages of 12 and 18 off the street and ask them the following series of questions: “What is hope?” “What does hope ‘look like’ to you?” “Why is hope important?” “Whose story of hope inspires you the most?” “When was the last time you thought about hope?” at least 99 out of the 100 would look at me like I was from a different planet!  In fact, truth be told, if you had asked me many of those same questions 10 years ago, I likely would have had the same response.  I am, after all, a product of that same laissez-faire approach to “heart stuff.”

And yet, I’m here to tell you that if, God forbid, one of those 100 young people found themselves in the grip of an eating disorder, addiction or similar form adversity, HOPE (or the absence of it) could quite literally mean the difference between life and death. I know, because I’ve stared into the vacant, tear-stained eyes and listened to the lifeless words of the hopeless.  At times, they were the eyes and words of my own daughter. Indeed, if I’m to be completely honest, I’ve seen that same blank stare of hopelessness in my own morning-mirrored reflection more than a time or two.  But I’ve also seen the power of HOPE. I’ve watched it start as a barely smoldering ember and grow into a raging fire that has a power unlike almost any other to first afford those struggling to overcome adversity (and their loved ones) with the strength they need to endure and, properly nurtured, ultimately to dispel the darkness that otherwise would suffocate them.  As a result, I’ve come to the conclusion that we can no longer take things like HOPE for granted (i.e., we can’t assume that a 20 yr. old, let alone a 14 yr. old, knows what it is).  We have to introduce it to them (and their parents) as a concept.  We have to educate them about it and we have to encourage them to continue to search for and embrace it in their lives.  With that in mind, I thought I’s spend the next several days offering some of my own (and others’) thoughts on the subject – to at least start the process.


Reflections On “The [Other] Scarlet Letter”

hand with stone

2.    Strive To Be Less Judgmental And More Empathetic

Several weeks ago, while sitting in church, it occurred to me that I’ve long been fascinated by stories about adulterous women – actually two stories in particular, Nathanial Hawthorne’s timeless classic, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850), and the New Testament account of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman, which I happened to be listening to at the time of my revelation – but not for the reasons you might think!  No, my interest in those stories stems from the light that both authors shine on two of the darkest and most destructive of all human emotions: shame and the lack of empathy and compassion we tend to have towards those experiencing shame, notwithstanding our own human frailties and indiscretions.

Chances are even if you’re not a Biblical scholar (which I certainly am not) or a person of faith for that matter, you’re at least generally familiar with the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman.  To hear John tell it, Jesus was teaching in the temple square, when a group of Scribes and Pharisees essentially dragged a woman, who, just a few hours earlier, had been caught in the act of adultery, and placed her before Him and the gathering crowd.  Suffice it to say, the Scribes and Pharisees weren’t seeking Jesus’ advice as to what to do with the woman, despite that being the apparent intent of their inquiry.  Indeed, as evidenced by their question, Jewish law was quite clear and unequivocal with respect to the appropriate punishment: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now, in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” Instead, they hoped He would respond in a way that was contrary to the Law, so that they could later use it against Him – and He certainly did not disappoint!  To the contrary, we’re told that Jesus bent down and began to trace in the sand.  When they persisted, He straighten and challenged the crowd saying: “Let the person among you who is without fault be the first to throw a stone at her.”  He then returned to the sand and, as he did, the crowd quietly began to disperse, one at a time, “beginning with the older ones” (LOL!) until Jesus was alone with the woman.  He then turned to the woman and said, “Woman, where have they gone? Has no one condemned you?” She responded, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither then do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

For purposes of this post, let’s set aside the theology of things.  From my perspective, even if the foregoing story was pure fiction – a fairy tale of sorts – it wouldn’t lessen the import of its message any more than the fictional nature of Hawthorne’s work diminishes its worth.  The adulterous woman had to be dragged into the courtyard because she was filled with shame and like most shame-filled people she feared (in fact, given the prevailing law of the day, she knew with absolute certainty) that if she shared her shame openly she would be judged unworthy (of Life!) – a judgment she almost certainly already had imposed on herself.  That is the nature of shame and one of the many reasons it is so insidious.  Would that she had known ahead of time what would unfold that day in the square – that she would not be judged for her transgression, that instead her shame, put on display for all the world to see, would be met with (and, ultimately, dissolved by) compassion and empathy.  Consider the implications of this – please!  I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the easier it is for me to relate to those “old guys” who were the first to put down their stones and walk away.  I’m here to encourage others not to wait until you’re old to understand the importance of “putting your stones down” and “picking up” empathy and compassion.  Because the truth is: When we are less judgmental and more vulnerable, which all of us have the capacity to be, we give others (loved ones and strangers alike) the “permission” they desperately need to be more vulnerable themselves and, eventually, to find the courage to release their shame.  Conversely, when we’re not, shame remains locked away deep inside the soul of its host or hostess and allowed to continue to do its dirty work.

I often wish John had added a post-script to his story.  One that let his readers know that not only did the crowd disperse, but that, the following day, one of its members invited the adulterous woman out for a cup of coffee at the Starbuck’s of the day and, after giving her a warm embrace, confided that many years earlier he too had done things he was ashamed of – and was glad to finally be able to get them off his chest with someone who could understand!


“I didn’t learn about vulnerability, courage, creativity and innovation from studying vulnerability.  I learned about these things from studying shame.  Brené Brown – “Listening to Shame”

Authoring The Owner’s Manual Of The Two Most Important Pieces Of Equipment You Will Ever Own

heart and brain programming

3.  Take Advantage Of The Fact That Your Heart And Mind Are Fully Programmable

It occurred to me last night that we take an awful lot for granted as 21st century inhabitants of this planet, even when it comes to the highly sophisticated pieces of machinery and equipment that are an integral and indispensable part of our everyday lives.  Take our automobiles, for example.  We get up every morning, turn the key in the ignition and assume that, as long as we’ve done the bare minimum (i.e., put gas in the tank!), they will transport us seamlessly from point A to point B.  Even more remarkably, we’ve come to assume that, should we get in an accident, those same cars will completely insulate us from all manner of harm, regardless of the wreck’s severity or foreseeability.  We make similar assumptions with respect to our laptops, notebooks, “i-whatevers” and  smart phones (i.e., as long as we’ve done “the heavy lifting” and ensured that the battery is charged, the expectation is that, at the touch of a screen or the striking of a few keys, they will instantaneously access people, information, movies, music videos, the “bargain du jour,” books, etc. around the globe).  And the truth is:  Far more often than not, these “things” do precisely what they’re supposed to do, with almost no input from their end users (that would be us!).  In fact, it’s only when they break down that we even begin to consider: just how incredibly complex these devices really are; the time, technology and talent that has gone into programming the intricate web of computer systems that enable them to do what they do; and, as importantly, the consequences associated with failing to routinely and properly service and maintain them.

Regrettably, we tend to have similarly assumptive attitudes when it comes to the most sophisticated of all “machines” known to man – our hearts and our minds!  Consciously or subconsciously we believe that they will perform precisely as they are intended and were “designed” with very little input, care and/or daily maintenance from us (e.g., periodically putting “food in our tank” and making sure we steal a little rest from time to time to “recharge our batteries”)!  And, I suppose, if mere subsistence were our goal, that “hands-off” approach might work, at least for some period of time.  But the truth is:  Much of the knowledge and many of the emotive principles that I have come believe are essential ingredients to relationship-building, problem-solving and living a happy, healthy are fulfilling life are not intuitive (i.e., they are not part of the “pre-loaded” software of our hearts and minds).  Fortunately, for us, however, unlike their mechanical counterparts (the intricacies of which most of us will never understand), we have the power to program our hearts and minds to maximize their ability to achieve each of those laudable goals.  Where our minds are concerned, we have the capacity (indeed, I would argue, the moral obligation) to learn – not only from books, but from our positive and not-so-positive life experiences, as well as from the wisdom and experiences of others who have traveled roads similar to ours before us.  We also have the ability to dictate the tenor, content and tone our “self-talk” and the perspectives we bring to situations and to the uncertainties and adversities that are an inescapable part of all of our lives.

The same is true of our heart (i.e., we can program it to facilitate the realization of its innermost desires) and I encourage and challenge you to do that by cultivating:

An expectant heart (i.e., one that is always open to possibility that something good will happen in your life);

An attentive heart (i.e., one that is sensitive to the world around you at all times and constantly on the look-out for “clues” that are intended to point you in the direction of the realization of your dreams and desires);

An adaptive heart (i.e., one that is willing to embrace a path and/or a desire that you might not initially have considered, but, due to a change in heart or circumstance, takes on a special meaning in your life);

A proactive heart (i.e., one that is committed to passionately pursuing all that is good);

A grateful heart (i.e., one that begins each day searching for until it finds something or someone it is grateful for);

A patient heart (i.e., one that appreciates the truth of the timeless adage that good things take time); and

A giving heart (i.e., one that realizes that, at the end of the day, our true beauty, our sense of self-worth and the fullness of our life is determined not by how we look, what we possess or how we compare, physically or otherwise, to those around us, but rather by the extent to which we empty ourselves in serving others).

I also urge you not wait for the life equivalent of the “Check Engine Light” to illuminate before beginning the process, because it takes considerable time and effort.  Start yesterday!

Come To Think Of It, Life Is (And Is Not) As Puzzling As It Seems


4.    Learn From “The Puzzlers”

I don’t know about you, but I always thought those who had a particular affinity for and were highly-skilled at putting together complex jigsaw puzzles were a little strange.  You know the folks I’m talking about – the ones who can dump out a pile of 10,000 tiny misshapen pieces of cardboard that all look basically the same on a table one day and two weeks later be proudly hanging a beautifully-shellacked finished version of the puzzle on their living room wall like it’s a piece of art!  In retrospect, however, I should have been envious of “The Puzzlers,” because, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, while I and the rest of my friends were spending Friday nights in bars and beautiful Saturday afternoons at the beach and on the golf course, they were hunched over puzzle at home, busy honing a skill set that, once mastered, would significantly increase the likelihood that they would live  a healthy, happy and fulfilling life:

a.  Puzzlers keep a “picture” of what they want the finished product to look like in the forefront of their mind at all times.  One of the first things any Puzzler worth their salt does, before even starting to put a puzzle together, is carefully study the image on the outside of the box.  In fact, many choose the puzzle because the image appeals to them either aesthetically, thematically or in its seeming complexity.  Ask them and they will tell you that it is imperative that they have a clear picture of their goal in mind before they start the often tedious process of putting the puzzle together and that they keep that image in front of them at all times.

b.  Puzzlers are not intimidated by the number of pieces that need to be put in place or the apparent complexity of the task. Too often in life we become overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks on our plate at a particular moment in time.  Viewed collectively, the tasks are intimidating to the point of paralyzing us. The Puzzler understands that the completion of the puzzle begins by putting the first piece in place and proceeding one piece at a time until the ultimate goal is achieved. At times, the process is slow, frustrating and painstaking.  Sometimes, for no apparent reason, several pieces fall into place in quick succession.  Eventually, however, each piece finds its home.

c.  Puzzlers understand how critical it is to first establish a strong foundation and well-defined boundaries.  Watch most Puzzlers ply their craft and, almost without exception, you will notice that they begin ensuring that the pieces that ultimately will form the borders of the puzzle are put in place first.  Even though the task is among the hardest aspects of completing the puzzle (mainly because the pieces used to form the boundaries all look the same), Puzzlers recognize that a strong foundation and well-defined boundaries are an essential first step to the eventual completion of the puzzle.

d.  Puzzlers know that all of the pieces of the puzzle are equally essential to the whole. Puzzlers understand a simple truth that we too often lose sight of as human beings:  Each piece of the puzzle has its place and each is an indispensable part of what ultimately will be the finished product.  Stated otherwise, no one piece of a puzzle is more or less important than the one that preceded it or the one that will follow it.  Too often, in life, we tend to give great weight to discreet events – usually negative ones – and, in doing so, vest them with more power over us than they deserve.  The next time you’re inclined to do that remember: Whatever it is, it’s just one piece among the millions of pieces that make you who you are!

e.  Puzzlers make wise choices, but remain flexible and ready to make others, if necessary.  As a rule, Puzzlers don’t like to dally. They identify a need, double check the goal, scour the landscape of available pieces in search of one that their instincts suggest will be a perfect fit and give every side of the piece they select an opportunity to fill that need.  If it does, they relish the moment and move on.  If it doesn’t, they simply make another choice, knowing that, eventually, they’ll get it right.  And so it should be with the puzzles of our lives: We should strive to make wise decisions, based on the best information available (and our instincts); give those choices every reasonable chance to succeed, but remain flexible and ready to repeat the process if necessary.

f.  Puzzlers appreciate the power of patience.  Enough said!