As you know, this blog is about finding teachers who guide and inspire us—whoever they are. Today’s teacher is Charles Cook, an Army veteran and former conductor for the New York City subway system; he passed away on August 19 at 79.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center towers on Sept 11, 2001, Charles was a 60-year-old retiree living in Harlem. He pulled on his work clothes, said goodbye to his wife, and headed downtown. Ground zero was nearly ten miles from his home and all public transportation was shut down. So he walked.
When he arrived, he was put to work, digging through the rubble by hand in search of people who might still be alive. With hundreds of other volunteers, he spent a total of three months at ground zero, sleeping on the floor of a nearby Brooks Brothers store.
In 2005, that experience inspired Charles to volunteer in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina left the city in ruins.
At ground zero, he was told that, “if you was down there in the first two to three weeks, it cuts your life expectancy off about five to 15 years,” he said in an interview in 2015. “But I don’t regret that,” he added. “You come in this world to go. It’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”
When Charles headed for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, he told the filmmakers: “I wasn’t really doing anything with my time. But now I have a purpose, you know. When I’m helping someone, I have purpose.”
I like to think about Charles making that ten-mile walk down through Manhattan, with thousands fleeing in the other direction. What was he thinking? A couple of things strike me about that story.
First, it’s a good kick in the behind. I confess, it’s easy to look around at all the problems in the world and think, “Why doesn’t someone do something?” But Charles thought: “I’m someone, I can do something.” He just got up and did what he could.
We can’t all volunteer at a big disaster. But we can all do something.
Second, Charles got something from that experience that money can’t buy—something that nurtured him on the inside, a deeper sense of purpose and a clearer perspective. So I leave you with his words:
“You come in this world to go. It’s a matter of how you go. Do you make a difference, was your life meaningful?”
[NOTE: This is a guest post by Landon Saunders.]
One of my favorite poems by Stephen Crane is about a man who had a wooden tongue. It goes like this:
There was a man with tongue of wood
Who essayed to sing,
And in truth it was lamentable.
But there was one who heard
The clip-clapper of this tongue of wood
And knew what the man
Wished to sing,
And with that the singer was content.
Being understood. Just to know that someone “knew what the man/Wished to sing.” What a transforming moment that can be. If only someone would listen, could hear us, could get beyond the inflection of our voice and the choice of our words…and understand!
Communicating can be hard work. Especially when it seems that every topic is a possible powder keg. Having a conversation can feel like we are navigating a minefield where one misstep—a misplaced word or a misunderstood phrase—and relationships are wounded, perhaps beyond repair.
But don’t give up! Keep trying to communicate with patience, compassion, and hope. There will be times that it will feel like no one understands what you’re trying to say. But, when that time comes, remember the vivid picture of the man with the wooden tongue, the one who understood him, and the peace that understanding brought. That peace is worth the work it takes to find it.
I think one thing we could use right now is a Silver Linings Playbook (to borrow from the title of the hit 2012 movie). We need strategies for finding the light that leaks out around the edges of the dark cloud we find ourselves under.
One who was especially skilled at finding light in darkness was Bill. W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In his book, As Bill Sees It, Bill talked about why A. A. was so successful at bringing real help and healing to struggling individuals around the world.
“Every aspect of this global unfoldment can be related to a single, critical word. The word is “communication.” There has been a life-saving communication among ourselves, with the world around us, and with God. From the beginning, communication in A.A. has been no ordinary transmission of helpful ideas and attitudes. Because of our kinship in suffering, and because our common means of deliverance are effective for ourselves only when commonly carried to others, our channels of contact have always been charged with the language of the heart.”
As a guest to A. A. meetings, I’ve been deeply impressed with the way members talk with each other. It does seem that they’ve found a new kind of language born of struggle, failure and pain. It’s a language that cuts through pretense, a language of honesty and authenticity, a language of humility and humanity and humor, a language of the real, of what essentially matters, a language of both deep acceptance of the way things are and hopefulness for growth, a language of vulnerability and daily victories.
As Bill mentioned, it’s a language beyond “ordinary transmission of helpful ideas and attitudes.” It’s a language beyond psycho-babble or pompous platitudes or philosophical pronouncements. It’s a language of the real. A language of the heart.
Could it be that these difficult times might help us become more fluent in the language of the heart?
We know the language of everyday routine. The language of the daily chatter of the media. The language of helpful advice. The language of the noise in our heads. But sometimes the words feel empty. Sometimes they even turn to ashes in our mouths.
And sometimes, we sense the need for a deeper, more authentic language. A language beyond games and mere noise. A language that helps us tell it like it is with us. A language that lets us look each other in the eye and talk from the heart once in a while. A language that lets us say something that matters once in a while.
How do we become more fluent in the language of the heart? Paradoxically, we might start with the place where language stops—the place of silence. The poet T. S. Eliot said:
“Where can the word be found? Where can the word resound? Not here. There is not enough silence.”
Eliot is talking about how difficult it can be to find a word that connects deeply.
Maybe finding this word and learning the language of the heart begins with getting over the noise, over the busyness, over the fear of silence.
Maybe it starts with quieting our minds, embracing the silence, getting comfortable with it, allowing solitude to become a warm, friendly, welcoming place.
And from there, we move to the silence of true, deep listening and genuine presence—the most precious gift we can give others in our lives.
Maybe silence can help us find those silver linings.
Maybe silence is not the enemy of language after all. Maybe it’s one of our best teachers.
In 2006 a high school English teacher asked students to write to various famous authors and ask for advice. Kurt Vonnegut was the only one to respond, and his response is insightful:
Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and [he mentions the names of the students]. I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances anymore because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.
What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.
Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six-line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair playing tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?
Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash receptacles. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
God bless you all!
This was one of the last things Vonnegut wrote. He died months later.
Here are some things I take from Vonnegut’s words: First, we can approach almost anything in a creative spirit and a creative way—whether it’s writing a letter, preparing a meal, having a conversation, performing a challenging task, dealing with a personal problem, or just getting through the day.
We always have the option to step back, open our minds, think afresh and respond a little differently, a little better.
Second, when we do anything creatively, it does something for us inside. It nurtures our spirit in a way that just putting our head down and getting through it may not do.
Third, we’re all creative. For example, every day you are creating a non-repeatable, irreplaceable life—a one-and-only you.
Creative means that you have a say in deciding how that work of art called your unique life will look–as opposed to just letting it happen.
[Note: While I’m on vacation, TLC features guest posts by Landon Saunders.]
I was reminded recently of an interview I watched with Mother Teresa. She had just won the Nobel Prize, and the interviewer said to her, “Mother Teresa, you have a great audience now. How can we help you? What can we do?” She didn’t answer. And so, he pressed her again, “Do you need money?” She replied, very simply, “No.” He asked, “Do you need recruits?” Again, she simply said, “No.” At this point, the interviewer seemed to become more frustrated, continuing to press her. Finally, she said, “Well, if you really want to help, you might go out in the street and find someone who needs you—who is lonely—and you might spend some time with him.”
These days, it is easy to find ourselves overwhelmed when we look around and see so much need and so much to do. We want to know how we can help, but in the face of such challenges we feel ill-equipped.
Over the years of my life, I have come to believe that at the very heart and soul of it all—at the very core—the thing each of us needs most is someone who knows how to be with us. And the greatest gift any of us can ever give is to be a person who knows how to be with another.
To be someone who knows how to put a hand on someone’s shoulder, not forgetting his worth, not forgetting her value, not forgetting the full story of that person’s life, and simply be present…this, as Mother Teresa reminds us, is perhaps the most important way we can be of help in our homes, in our communities, and in our world.
(Note: While I’m on vacation, TLC will feature guest posts.)
My good friend, Dr. James Walters, and I often surface sayings we remember hearing in our childhood that we enjoy. The other day James mentioned that he had heard his grandfather speak of needing a “meaningful rain.” He asked his grandfather, “What do you mean—a meaningful rain?” His grandfather replied, “It’s when the rain meets the moisture.”
The reference, of course, suggests that the rain is slow and soaking (hence, “meaningful”) and finally meets the moisture that is under the dry, dusty, even parched, soil above.
A “meaningful rain” gets to the depths. In the current virus crisis, our sense of self can feel dry, dusty, and parched due to being isolated from friends and normal activities that help nourish our spirits. It can take a toll on our sense of well-being. We need a “meaningful rain”.
Here are four words that connect us with the well-springs of our lives. These words have been celebrated by artists, poets, and prophets for centuries. They are spirit, love, light, life. These are four ideas that bring out the best in us.
Your spirit helps shake off dead routines and opens you to imagination, wonder, and change; your love is that inexhaustible resource that expresses your best humanity; your light from within enables you to find, with wisdom, your way in all circumstances; and your life reveals your deepest yearning for what is good and true and just.
Okay, I admit this might be viewed as a bit too aspirational. I thought about just tossing these thoughts aside and writing something more practical. But then I thought, no, these thoughts have meant so much to me and the way I live my own life that I decided they might mean something to you as well.
Today we are awash with information that purports to tell us who we are and what we should do. But what we most need are ideas that mine the riches within our own persons, ideas that keep us in touch with our own interesting and unique self.
How do we make these thoughts practical? These are thoughts that need time, like a slow soaking meaningful rain, time for them to connect to a richness within us. So, you might place the four words on a slip of paper and post them where you’ll see them every day. If you do no more than call them to mind each day, they will begin to sink in deeper and deeper.
Or, you could use them for a moment of meditation in which you think about each idea in a way that helps you absorb their power and integrate them with the way you think about your self—your incredible humanity.
You are spirit. You are love. You are light. You are life. Think of these words as a seeding of your being that, who knows, might just result in a meaning full rain.