Who are you?

rocksThe security line was not that long considering it was the regular commuting time. Travel for me is easy having in the past four years flown dozens of times. This time, I had my 15-year-old son in tow for an international trip. All the details of getting us both to our destination had my head spinning. Passports? Check. Tickets? Check. Was this the right day we were traveling? Check. It is funny all the things that were running through my head.

There was one detail that had slipped my attention. And it was the most important one of all.

Several years ago my friend started a tradition. We had experienced something remarkable together. To signify that moment he had taken a rock from a high mountain top from where we had climbed together and at a critical time handed it to me and said, “don’t forget who you are.” At crucial times he has continued to return to that same spot, finding more of those rocks. He gives them to me right at the moments I need to remember. About a month ago he handed me another one as I was about to speak to a large group of men. The topic was all about identity, knowing who they truly are.

As my son and I neared the body scanner, the TSA agent asked me if I had anything in my pockets. Checking my pockets was instinctual. “Of course, I don’t have anything in my pockets,” I thought. But teaching my son always to check I patted my pockets down and instructed him to as well. In my side pocket was something about the size of a walnut. What in the world could it be? Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the rock my friend had given me. I had not worn these pants since that day. The agent, seeing the rock said “that’s ok, just hold it in your hand as you are scanned.” So there I was in the body scanner holding my rock high above my head, remebering of who I was.

None of the other details mattered now. And what my son needed most from me was for me to be myself. He needed me to be present and attentive. He needed me to be his dad.

The stories we tell

Stove in roomPeople have sat around open fires, hearths, tables and pubs telling each other stories for millennia.

There are two types of stories that are prevalent, the inspirational and the cautionary. The first one, on purpose or not, gets people dreaming. They may have never even thought of doing something, traveling, or stepping out of their comfort zone. On hearing another person recount something extravagant can be the beginning, giving them the energy to step out on their own.

The cautionary tale, while sometimes serving a purpose, usually stops people from venturing beyond the ordinary. These are where the old fairy tales fall. They were told to keep children in line, by warning of imaginary ogres and phantasms lurking in the woods. We have modern versions of these as well. Failures or false starts can find us telling others that something can’t be done, or a dream isn’t attainable. Warning others of real danger is necessary, but more often we are passing on our unfounded fears.

What kind of stories will we choose to tell?

The worst memory

climbConnection means we will continually put ourselves at risk. Time and time again we will have to reach out, extend, take a chance at rejection.

I’ve always been fascinated with world class climbers. Recently I watched the film about Jimi Chin, Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk’s climb of the Meru a legendary peak in the Himalayas. The film is way more than a climbing documentary. It is about mentor ship, marriage, loss, and endurance. What struck me most about the story is the relationships.

At one point Chin quotes a climber saying “the best alpinists are the ones with the worst memory. Alpine climbing is a brutal but rewarding sport. The stakes are so hi. I think in the quote “alpinists” could be replaced with friends, lovers, and relatives. Yes, we all get hurt. Along the path of connection, much of it comes with both pain and joy.

My question (and I pose this to myself as well) is not what you will do with the loss or pain but will you risk it all again? We will face trials. But best of all, no matter our age, we will continue to have the chance to connect with amazing people who will forever change our lives. And we will change theirs.

Why we act in friendship

person helping someone upIs it duty or obligation that compels us to act in a relationship?

What motivates us to help someone without receiving something in return?

As I explore the concept of connections (guanxi) in Chinese culture, I have started to think about my gestures of kindness in my relationships and where they originate. As a westerner, like many, the reply “it is my duty”, in return to a “thank you” for a gift or favor granted could leave me confused or even offended. But if duty is a way of showing honor as well as your status as a friend, then it is something to cherish.

In the west, we would just say you are welcome and move on. In China, I can only relate this as almost an unspoken relational contract between people. Western society in many ways lacks etiquette, protocol, and decorum. Certain formalities seem archaic, but help ensure a social structure around friendship. Duty then in this context means something entirely different. It is an action done because it is the right thing to do. It is what moves the friendship forward and continues the process. If someone disrupts this, many things will fall apart.

If it is our duty to love, care, help and listen then doesn’t it motivate us toward more? If we begin at duty, maybe we end up at commitment?

What will you do

coupleThings happen in life. People betray, disappoint or even outright hurt us. Intentionally or not we come away scarred. We make statements like “I’ll never trust again” or “I am done with love.” Even worse is when we begin to believe something untrue about ourselves, people or future relationships.

There are plenty of things that come out of these events that land us on the hard side of relating with others. Instead, what if we choose to reach out again, show up for someone, or offer love to someone in pain. It takes a lot to trust again. There is no minimizing any of these things. One action can begin to unravel many wrongs. And truthfully it may get harder before healing. Like all journeys, you have to start someplace.

And beginning here makes sense. Beginning here says “I can be trusted. I care. I will listen.”

In the process of healing, we get to be a part of someone else’s too.

And a little more

letterDo your duty and a little more and the future will take care of itself. Andrew Carnegie

How does this apply to friendship? Is it staying in touch? Maybe it is checking in when we know a friend is struggling. Being consistent and consistently present? Perhaps a note to ensure someone knows we care.

It is the duty in friendship; that is the mortar keeping it live. The day to day to Carnegie, if speaking about friendship, would mean that the friendship would stay the test of time. Not by doing nothing, but the opposite “duty and a little more”. What is your duty? What is your “little more”?

As if no one else is around

Rear view mirrorConnecting with someone takes effort. The action comes in being fully present, mindful and focused on them and no one else. Recently my wife and I have been driving our daughter to a horse stable to ride and take care of her horse. It is about a 15-minute drive each way from our house. The ride though has turned out to be time to connect. No interruptions allow us to have the conversations that can’t happen at home or anywhere else. Sometimes we just listen to music on the drive. Often she does not begin to open up until we have driven for ten minutes or more. Other days she chatters away about the day, and I am thrilled to listen.

It becomes harder when we don’t have that time without distractions. It is too easy to lose focus and drift off in conversation. Technology is too convenient of a distraction. Before we know it, we have lost our connection.

It is a hard practice to follow but so rewarding. Acting as if the other person is the only one in the world gives us a chance to hear between the lines, the hidden pieces of their story and make a real connection. We may be the only one in their day that does it. We never can know the impact that can make on their lives.

Excited for them

mapIt happened twice today. The first was my excitement over a strangers departure on a thrilling overseas adventure. The second one happened as I talked to a friend headed on a weekend trip to one of my favorite childhood vacation spots. As a spectator on both accounts, I still became excited over what they would be experiencing and the thrill of visiting someplace new.

To join in on others endeavors is to fuel their own enthusiasm. To be caught up as if we were ourselves are participants not only ushers them on in their resolve to step out and try new things but also enlivens our hearts to embark on our own undertakings.

Guanxi

china-young-manThe Chinese term for relationship “guanxi” is difficult for a Westerner to understand. The word has differences that are not only helpful for navigating friendships and society in China but also in the West.

China has fascinated me my whole life. As a way of both learning more and exploring our connectedness I plan to do a series on community and relationship in China. These will be both explorative as well as experiential. I have spent time in mainland China over the last three years. It is those shorter visits and the friendships I have gained, that originally sparked my desire to write a book on connection.

I will post on this series throughout the summer as our whole family prepares to move to China. My wife and I both with be working as foreign exchange teachers at a university for the next two years. It is an exciting time for many reasons. One that is at the top of my list is the chance to learn from a society that places relationship as one of the most important values.

Finding beauty in between

stonesI was listening to a friends life story recently. Hearing someone recount the ups and downs of their journey is rewarding. Not one is alike, and if you pay close attention, you can pick up themes that even they do not often see.

Besides these themes is the beauty we can overlook in the hardest times of our past. As a listener, I’ve learned to ask about those gaps in between “better times.” Questions like “did you discover anything about yourself during that time?”, or “who were your best friends with then?” help begin the discovery.

Simone Weil said “There are only two things that pierce the human heart.
One is beauty, the other is affliction.” Hardship or tragedies frame the beauty in our lives. In many ways, it allows contrast to exist.

If we take the time, we find endless treasure in each other’s stories. In the process, we help each other heal and understand.

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