“I Always Wondered Why The Gun Didn’t Go Off”

City College Station

A few Saturdays ago, I was listening to a Radio Lab segment entitled “The Good Show” on National Public Radio, in which the producers and hosts were exploring what compels people to act in selfless and courageous ways for the benefit of others, often complete strangers.  The piece centered, in part, on the story of Wesley James Autrey, a 50 year-old New York City construction worker.  It seems that, on January 2, 2007, Autrey jumped onto the track bed at NYC’s 137th Street – City College subway station in an effort to save Cameron Hollopeter, a 20-year-old film student, who had fallen onto the tracks and faced almost certain death from an approaching train.  That fact, standing alone, would be incredible enough, but it is the “rest of the story” that kept me glued to the radio. Perhaps it’s best if I just let Autrey and the Radio Lab hosts pick up it up from here:

Host:  “When we finally met up with Wesley on the platform where this incident happened – the 137th Street – City College Station – he explained to us that his daughters had been with him that day!  How old were your daughters at the time?”

Wesley: “They were 4 and 6,” he said, showing the host a wallet size photo of the two.

Host:  “Oh my God – super cute!  So the three of them are standing there and this [6’ tall, 180 lb.] guy starts convulsing and eventually falls off the platform and onto the tracks right as a training is coming.  Autrey’s choice is pretty stark:  In order to save this complete stranger, he’s got to leave his daughters behind – potentially without a dad.”

Wesley:  “So, I’m looking at him shaking and going into another seizure.  For some strange reason, a voice came out of nowhere and said: ‘Don’t worry about your own, don’t worry about your daughters.  You can do this.’”

Host:  “So he jumps. Runs to the guy (he’s unconscious) and tries to grab his hand.”

Wesley:  “Each time I grab his hand, we slip apart.  I’d grab, he’d slip. I look up and see the train is getting closer.  I grab his hand again, we slip apart – the train is getting closer still. 100 feet, 50 feet . . .”

Host: “And then it’s right there and all Autrey can do is grab the guy, get him in a bear hug and flatten his body against the guy as much as he can [sound of a train speeding by in the background]. “

Wesley:  “The first train car just grazed my calves.  And when the train came to a stop, after 45 cars passed over us, I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Excuse me, you seemed to have a seizure or something.  You don’t know me and I don’t know you.’ So I just kept talking to him until he came to and he was like, ‘Where are we?’ And I said, ‘We’re underneath a train.’ He said, ‘Who are you?’  And I said, ‘I came down here to save your life.’ So he kept asking me, ‘Are we dead?  Are we in heaven?’  I gave him a slight pinch on his arm.  He said, ‘Ouch!’ I said, ‘See, you’re very much alive!’”

Host:  “Did you ever ask yourself at this point, ‘What am I doing here?!?’  I mean, he asked what he was doing there.  Didn’t you ask the same question?”

Wesley:  “Well, I could hear the two ladies who had my daughters between their legs.  I could hear my daughters screaming. So, when the train came to a stop, I yelled out from underneath it, ‘Excuse me, I’m their father.  We’re okay.  I just want to let my daughters know that I’m okay, because I know they’re worried about me.’  Everybody started clapping.”

Host:  “Can I ask you a question:  So, the point at which you said you heard a voice that said, ‘you can do this’ – what is amazing to me is that you left your daughters right here and dived down after a guy you didn’t even know.”

Wesley:  “Well, he was a stranger, a total stranger.  But, you know what, the mission wasn’t completed.  I was chosen for that.  I felt like I was the chosen one for that moment.”

Host:  “Wow! But for a religious person, I would wonder: ‘Why me?’”

Wesley:  “Well, you know what? Maybe 20 years ago, I was supposed to be at a certain place . . .”

Host:  “And then he explained to us exactly why he had jumped.  He was the one guy who could do that.  He said that right before his feet left the platform this one specific moment from his life flashed to mind.”

Wesley:  “This thing happened.  I had a gun put to my temple and the trigger was pulled, but it misfired . . .”

Host:  “A gun was put to your head?!?  So, you were almost dead?”

Wesley:  “I was almost dead.”

Host: “So you think you might have been spared for a purpose?”

Wesley:  “I was spared for a reason.”

Host:  “After that moment, he said, when the gun went ‘click’ and he didn’t die, he always wondered, why God had spared him in that moment, until he was on the subway platform and he saw the guy fall off and he said then he knew.  This is why.

Wesley:  “I can do this.  That voice . . . when that voice said ‘you’re going to be okay’ I knew everything was going to work out.”

As I listened intently to Autrey’s story and reflected on it in the days that followed, it occurred to me that there is much for all of us to learn from his selfless and courageous act: that when it comes to someone in need, there’s no such thing as a stranger; that, while (thankfully) few of us will ever experience the horror of having a gun pointed at our head, the relief of it misfiring, our life being saved not once but twice or the opportunity to save the life of another, all of us have a purpose in life that likely will include one day being there for someone in need; and that it is worth our wondering what that purpose is and being ever vigilant for the opportunity to make it manifest.  Indeed, I’m certain that, like his rescuer before him, Cameron’s sense of wonder began the moment he crawled out from underneath that train.

But what strikes me as most profound about that day is the message Autrey quite unknowingly, but powerfully delivered to his daughters:  “If, on a moment’s notice, my dad would quite literally and unhesitatingly lay down his life for a complete stranger, what wouldn’t he be willing to do for me, a little girl he loves most dearly, in the hour of my greatest need?”  Now, I’m certainly not about to suggest that you jump in front of a fast-moving train to make that statement to your daughter or your son (or anyone you hold dear for that matter), but I am suggesting, in the strongest terms, that you find a way to make it and that you do it sooner rather than later.  Because it is a message all of us need to hear, especially our daughters, a truth they/we can cling to when that hour – their/our hour – inevitably arrives.


The Runner


No matter what time of the day or night I walk, I always see her – running. She’s mostly a stranger to me save for the secrets revealed by the unnatural thinness of her frame. My “heart antenna” tells me she’s desperately trying to run away from something and that, in her mind, she can’t possibly run fast or far enough.  Maybe she’s running from a mirrored reflection of herself that at some point stopped measuring up to what she or, more likely, others (or both) deemed to be the “appropriate standard” of beauty.  Maybe she’s running from a broken, dysfunctional or, worse yet, indifferent home.  Maybe she’s running from her past, though she seems much too young for that, or from a present filled with bullying, guilt or shame.  Maybe she’s running from the pressure to succeed or the fear that she might fail.  Maybe she’s running from feeling disrespected or simply feeling too much.  Maybe, depending on the day, it’s a combination of all of the above – and more.  However, one thing is painfully clear:  She has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

I fantasize about the Runner.  I imagine her pausing long enough for me to gather the courage to tell her that she’s not alone; that I know intimately the “places” she’s running from and the urge to flee that they give rise to; that I too have felt the pain of being ignored, of wondering if I would ever fit in, be accepted, feel as if I belonged;  that, perhaps not unlike her, I spent countless nights in tears wondering if the seeming indifference of others would ever stop, whether those who were always so quick to bear their souls to me would ever take the time to listen, to set aside the wants of their hearts so that they could pay full attention to the needs of mine; that I am no stranger to fear, guilt or shame;  and that I know, first hand, what it’s like to long for someone to want and need you simply for who you are and all that you have to give and the profound sense of emptiness that comes when the realization of that dream seems hopelessly far away.

In my fantasy, the Runner responds by sharing her heart – and I listen.  And when she’s done, I share my own where she’s concerned.  I tell her that the image that greets her in the morning mirror was intended to be her own best friend, not her own worst enemy.  I tell her that the sculpture of her that she continues to dangerously chip away at was beautiful enough to begin with – a masterpiece in fact – and that her most-women-would-die-for-height, the lines and features of her face and the curly-frizzy-mind-of-its-own-never-looks-the-same-from-day-to-day-hair bouncing on the top of her head are all the physical attributes she will ever need. And lastly, I tell her it’s time to stop running, because few will understand her running the way that I do and because the more she runs the further away she gets from a world that is thirsting for the gift of her, her vulnerability, her sensitivity, her simultaneously fragile and resilient spirit – the power of her knowing voice.

Maybe one day, the Runner too will wonder – about the old guy with the gray hair, the one who walks the same mind-numbingly boring route (almost) every day, the one who seems lost in thought, but somehow always manages a simple “hello” and smile for her.  Maybe in that moment her sense of wonder (and mine) will overcome the admonition of our childhood that we should “never talk to strangers” and we’ll find out that we’re the farthest thing from “strangers” the world has ever known!


“(Not Exactly) Eating Disorders 101”

Love Never Fails

As I settled in to one of the few remaining empty seats smack dab in the middle of the room hosting the introductory session of this year’s NEDA Annual Conference (i.e., “Eating Disorders 101”), I wasn’t at all sure “why” I was there, let alone why I had selected a seat that made an inconspicuous early exit impossible, as if any seat in a room packed with 150 woman would allow one of only 4 men to leave without being noticed!  After all, I had long since “graduated” from the “freshman year curriculum” on eating disorder awareness.  And then, a middle-aged woman sitting at the table behind me raised her hand and opened her heart – and I realized my presence was no accident.  It seems that her 25 year-old son was struggling mightily with an eating disorder (yes, men too (by the hundreds of thousands) are afflicted with these insidious diseases!).  In the early stages, he readily acknowledged his illness and welcomed offers of help.  Of late, however, the disease had begun to wield his “adulthood” as a sword to fend off all who dared to suggest he was sick or in need of treatment, even his own mother who, like most moms (and dads), wanted only for “her little boy” to live and, one day, be happy.  He was “old enough now to make his own decisions,” he told her, “including if or when I need help and what that help should look like.” She, on the other hand, was overcome with fear for his life and obviously desperate for guidance.  In fact, she readily admitted that her profound sense of helplessness was quickly giving way to one of hopelessness. 

The two presenters were swift to acknowledge and offer a clinical perspective on the unique challenges faced by parents of adult children suffering from eating disorders, but I could tell from the tears that had begun to silently stream down mom’s face that, though well-intended, their words had done little to comfort her or give her hope.  Before I could reign it back in, my hand was in the air.  My heart just can’t seem to shut-up in moments like that anymore! I turned to the woman and told her that I knew intimately the place from which her tears flowed.  I told her that I too have an adult child (a daughter her son’s age) who, on more than one occasion, nearly died at the hands of an eating disorder and who, at times, often when her life could least tolerate it, asserted her “adulthood” as a shield to block well-intended offers of help.  I told her that through the same tears she was now shedding I had come to learn that, while my daughter may not have expressed the point as clearly or compassionately as she could have (or I would have liked her to!), she, like the woman’s son, had actually arrived at a difficult-for-a-parent-to-accept, but inescapable truth, namely that the eating disorder battle is the sufferer’s alone to fight; that, when all is said and done, only they can choose life and commit to doing the hard work required to not only sustain it biologically, but to embrace it fully; and that, as much as our instincts cry out to be more involved, our role, as loved ones of adult sufferers, is to give them the freedom they need to do that work.

“However,” I hastened to add, “I believe there are at least 3 things you can do that may make a meaningful difference in your son’s journey.”  With that, the room grew silent.  I’m not sure “where” the words that followed came from or exactly what I said, but it was something along these paraphrased lines.  “First, you need to do what you can to help your son stay connected (or re-connect) with his pre-eating disorder self, because the reality is, while they currently may be buried beneath a mountain of lies and distortions, his true heart and self did not suddenly disappear.  One way to do that is to provide him with photographs of simpler, healthier times in his life, times of joy, of togetherness, of endless possibilities – pictures of what life once ‘looked like’ and will look like again when his truth regains it foothold (http://tinyurl.com/ktd8uhv). Another is to enlist the help of others whose lives your son has touched through the years and urge them to share their love for him, either in person or in heartfelt notes (http://tinyurl.com/n47vo96). Second, because eating disorders are shame-based and depend on your son feeling unworthy and unloved for their sustenance, it is imperative that you shower him with empathy, unconditional love and support at all times.  Believe me, that won’t be easy.  To the contrary, in both his words and by his actions, your son will do everything he can to drive you and your love away.  Under no circumstances can you allow that to happen, because whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, your son needs to know that there is someone in the world he can trust, someone who will not abandon him in his darkest hour.  Finally, it’s very important that you never lose hope.  That you remain fully committed to the belief that, one day, healing will come and your son will discover what you have always known to be true about him – that he is loved and worthy of fully receiving the love you (and others) have to give.

No sooner had I finished than a young woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said: “Thank you.  I’ve spent the last two years trying to figure out how I ever survived my eating disorder and now I know.  It’s because someone stood by me every step of the way.  They refused to leave me.  They just wouldn’t give up on me.  They believed in me when no one else did.  Eventually, their presence convinced me that I was worthy of life and of love.”  Come to think of it, all of us would benefit greatly from having those three things in our life: (1) a picture kept in the forefront of our minds at all times that reminds us of what we aspire to; (2) hope; and (3) the knowledge and assurances that there is someone in our life, who loves us so much that, on a moment’s notice, they would gladly drop everything they’re doing to rush to our side, pick us up, dust us off and stand by us, offering their unconditional support until we regain the strength necessary to resume our journey.  I suspect there’s someone in all of our lives who needs to know we are (or are willing to be) that person!  This holiday season might be a perfect time to give them that gift.


The “It’s-All-About-The-Me” Virus


I suspect that, quite literally, from the time man first set foot on this planet until now, there has always been a segment of the population infected with the “It’s-All-About-The-Me Virus” – and chances are there always will be.  You know the folks I’m talking about.  The ones convinced that the world revolves around (and exists to serve) their needs.  The ones who, whether they’re in the boardroom, the classroom, the courtroom or the family living room just can’t seem to ever get enough of themselves.  The ones intoxicated by the sound of their own voice. The ones who not only have an opinion on virtually every subject imaginable, but are intent, at any cost, on convincing those around them, especially those who dare to disagree, to adopt those opinions as their own – all of them.  The ones who confuse happiness with the misguided sense of satisfaction that sometimes derives from tearing others down.  The ones who, from their metaphorical air-conditioned “Sky Boxes” perched high above the “50 yard line of Life,” look with quiet disdain on those above and below them (i.e., in the “nose bleed” section and end zone seats), as being less worthy.  The ones who smugly (and naively) have convinced themselves that, as long as they are at the helm of the ship, adversity will know better than to come knocking on their door.

But, if my experiences over the past several months are an accurate barometer that segment appears to be growing at an alarming rate.  In its early stages, the symptoms of “the Virus” are fairly innocuous.  Those lost in the world of me may, for example, find themselves: ignoring red lights and stop signs with impunity, oblivious to the risk of harm to others (and themselves) they create in doing so; clinging to their cellphones like grim death at all hours of the day and night, lest they miss an e-mail, text message or call that would give them the chance to display their “importance” not only to the sender or caller, but to those around them; or being more  interested in the outcome of the game on their silenced ESPN phone app, than the smile on their daughter’s face as she strikes the final note on an almost flawless Sunday afternoon piano recital.  The Virus also is to blame for those who approach an oncoming pedestrian on a sidewalk-built-for-two and refuse to deviate from the center-line, as well as those who unabashedly race around the opposite end of a line of parked cars, so that they can steal a parking space in a holiday-crowded mall from someone who had already been waiting patiently for it to empty with their blinker on.

If left unchecked, however, the Virus’ symptoms almost always increase in severity to include a complete loss of empathy and the rapid loss of peripheral vision. In extreme cases, it can even lead to total myopia (i.e., a complete inability or desire to see or care about anyone other than themselves).  Examples of those in the more advanced stages of the disease include those who, while savoring the last bite of their Australian lobster tail at an upscale steakhouse, can simultaneously (and vociferously) argue against grass roots campaigns and legislative initiatives aimed at modestly increasing the minimum wage, so that the busser father of two who later will clean their table might have at least a fighting chance of making ends meet.  They also include the folks, who, cloaked in the security blanket of their gold-plated health care plans, stand at the water cooler advocating against admittedly less-than-perfect, but you-have-to-start-somewhere attempts to afford the less fortunate an opportunity to secure minimal insurance protection for themselves and their family, under the guise of “what those folks really should be doing is getting a ‘real job’ with benefits.”  On occasion, those afflicted act as bullies in the workplace and in their own homes, berating those they deem inferior to them (e.g., colleagues, staff members, spouses, children, etc.) with behaviors and words that are manipulative, condescending, demeaning and hurtful.

Fortunately, the “It’s-All-About-The-Me Virus” usually runs its course.  In time, most of us come to realize that we weren’t put on this Earth to pursue The Me, but rather to be sensitive (and attentive) to the needs of The We. We discover that true happiness depends on our ability (and our willingness) to set aside our sense of self-importance often and long enough to affirm, build up, inspire and bring hope to others.  Some arrive at this understanding naturally (i.e., as part of their individual development and maturation), while others find it in their faith.  Still others are inspired by the example set by others or in their readings.  Some eyes are opened by the radiance and genuineness of the spontaneous smile that greets their first other-centered act of kindness and, almost instinctively, like a moth drawn to the light, they keep coming back for more.  And then there are those who, regrettably, arrive at a fuller awareness of our human connectedness by a moment or a period of adversity (or need) in their own life or the life of someone they love.  From my perspective, it doesn’t matter how, why or even when any of us get there; what’s important is that someday, in some way, we do and that when we do we find the courage and the strength to act on our new found sense of selflessness, so that the true healing can begin.

Why is it important? Because I believe that: (1) as great as the needs that exist in the world are (and they are great), our individual and collective ability and capacity to meet those needs is greater; (2) those needs are not confined to some remote, underprivileged area halfway across the globe – they exist in those who populate our places of work and worship, on both sides of the podium in the schools where are children are being educated, in the stores and restaurants that we frequent, the social settings in which we routinely find ourselves and, on occasion, sitting across from us at the dining room table; (3) the events that give rise to needs don’t discriminate based on political ideology, age, ethnicity, gender, social status and/or educational background and they almost never are a matter of choice; (4) when it comes to meeting needs one person can make a difference simply by using their hands to lend a helping one, their feet to walk a mile in another’s footsteps, their heart to display empathy and compassion, their mind to become educated, their tongue to speak out on behalf of those who may have temporarily lost or forgotten their “voice” or, even less demanding, their ears to listen; and (5) every tear that falls, every heart that breaks and every life that’s lost, literally or figuratively, due to indifference, inaction and/or ignorance diminishes all of us.

Trust me on this one: I’ve seen the handiwork of this “disease” – it’s ugly.  But, I’ve also been privileged to witness giving (other-centered) hearts in action and the life-affirming fruits of the seeds they sew, which are a magnificent sight to behold.  We can do better than we’re doing.  We owe it to ourselves (and to those who stand to benefit from the gift of us) to do better.  It is our true calling.  I’ll see you in the end zone!


The “Surround Sound” Of Our Lives


For the better part of the past 2 years, my friend has been engaged in a major home renovation project.  Actually, “embroiled” might be a more accurate term, given that, as often is the case in such undertakings, what could go wrong has gone wrong (and then some!), despite everyone’s best intentions and efforts.  It has been an especially difficult period for my friend, who has very strong perfectionistic and OCD tendencies.  To his credit, however, my friend learned important lessons along the way and when the time came for him to put what he deemed to be the most important piece of the puzzle in place (i.e., the surround sound system in his above-ground “Man Cave” a/k/a the family living room), he was ready!  You see, my friend is a bit of audiophile.  He not only has an intrinsic appreciation for the technical qualities of sound, he also understands the calming and restorative powers of music. In fact, most of my friend’s days end by his grabbing a glass of red wine and settling in on a sofa surrounded by one of his favorite tunes.  That being the case, it probably will come as no surprise that he obsessed about every detail of the surround sound system that he now relies on to “deliver the goods.” Each speaker, receiver, equalizer, sub-woofer, CD deck, etc. was carefully selected and positioned to deliver the highest quality of sound currently available on the market – and, for the most part, he has been a noticeably happier person since it was installed.

All of which led me to realize on last night’s walk the many parallels between my friend’s home renovation project and the construction (or, as the case may be, “reconstruction”) projects that are ongoing in each of our daily lives. Because we are human, it is inevitable that, despite our best intentions and efforts, there will be times when our commitment to “being our own best friend” (http://tinyurl.com/knsybky) will periodically be interrupted by our natural hyper-critical tendencies.  Our self-talk will cease to be kind and re-affirming and we will lose our ability to see ourselves clearly. Our efforts to “live out loud” (https://donblackwell.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/live-out-loud) will give way to our desire to withdraw, isolate and hold our emotions close.  When that happens, it is essential that we have an “HQ surround sound” system of our own in place – a support team comprised of people who love us, who understand us, who want only what is best for us; people who appreciate the importance of and, on a moment’s notice, are capable of instilling an “opposite voice” (http://tinyurl.com/chewrwy);  people we who we trust implicitly to draw us out of our silence and show us to ourselves, when our view of self has been obscured (http://tinyurl.com/a9tdsco).  Like my friend, it is imperative that we do our research and choose these people carefully, while weeding out those who, due to selfishness or a track record of unreliability or indifference, have forfeited their right to hold such a cherished place in our lives.

Come to think of it, if I’m to be critical of anything about my friend’s handling of his home re-build, it would be his decision to wait until it was nearly complete before installing the piece that ultimately would matter most to him (i.e., his state-of-the-art HQ surround sound system).  I can’t help but think that if he’d moved it to its rightful place (i.e., the top, rather than the bottom, of his “To Do” list), the ability to bathe in the soothing sounds of Carole King may have allowed the news that contractors had discovered a virtual army of Formosa termites slowly and silently consuming his house to go down just a little easier!