February 2009

Good afternoon.

I am considering today the incredible influence of certain conversations and interactions which seem to burst into our lives at just the right moment. Upon reflection, these seemingly 'random' encounters have the power to actually shape our lives in ways that seem unimaginable at the time. Why do they occur at some times but not others when we may be longing for direction or encouragement? It is indeed a mystery. But I am struck most by the fact that they occur at all.

One of the great honors of my life has been to serve as a trustee on the Morehouse College Board in Atlanta. This all-male historically black college which produced giants like Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, has inspired and challenged me over several decades. But what was it that compelled me to become involved there? I recall a conversation with former congressman, Vice Presidential candidate and friend Jack Kemp. He explained in great detail that as a Republican his aim was to restore the party to the legacy of Lincoln. He went on to say how his involvement at DC-based Howard University was a natural fit for him. I left that meeting knowing that this was a moment that I would long recall. Ten years later, the President of Morehouse, Dr. Leroy Keith, discussed with me his intent to add more trustees to his board. I told him that I would be honored to suggest some names. He looked at me intently and quietly inquired: "What about you?" I was shocked, silenced and moved, so I gladly accepted. Coincidence, providence…not sure.  My life, I know, has been enriched by the opportunity to serve this great university among its "Morehouse men".

When Steve Case left the Chairmanship of AOL/Time Warner in early 2003, it was a challenging stretch for him. This hugely talented, some would say global brand, was facing challenges on all sides, both personally and professionally. His brother Dan was struggling with advanced brain cancer while the huge merger had complexities beyond what anyone could have anticipated. Dan and I had been at Oxford together and while I knew Steve, we did not become close friends until the circumstances surrounding Dan's battle with cancer brought us together for extended periods of time. We talked deeply about life, death and possibilities. Some of our conversations were around the notion of how to integrate our lives to be much more holistic so that our business lives, lives of service, friendships and all else would fit into a seamless web of meaningful activity. I recall Steve looking me in the eye and saying something like, 'I want that too...would you join me by officing together? We can see how this works real time.' I happily transported my small team to the lovely historic N Street building owned by Jean and Steve Case. That conversation/challenge has led to a collaboration with the Cases that has been one of the most incredible and fulfilling chapters of my life. Progress in brain cancer research, interfaith dialogue, clean water for Africa - even PathNorth - are among the projects I've been privileged to work on as a result. Coincidence, providence...not sure.

What I am struck by is my need- our need - to be alert to conversations which might have significance beyond themselves.

We have all been affected by the life of Lincoln these days. President Obama reminds us regularly of his importance historically and in our own day. Doris Kearns Goodwin's fascinating work, Team of Rivals, has been something of a blueprint for our new president.

I recently came across a conversation that Lincoln had in the dark winter of 1862 with the Rector of Trinity Church, New York. As you will recall, Lincoln lost not one, but two sons, Eddie and Willy. Further, Lincoln, as did Churchill, suffered from what now appears to be clinical depression. Handling both personal sorrow and the crushing despairing times of the Civil War placed unimaginable pressures on this leader. The conversation between Lincoln and Dr. Francis Vinton was both timely and transformational for Lincoln the man. Lincoln labored over the notion that death was the end for his young sons. This seemed wrong and unfair. The sorrow was truly unbearable. Following the recent death of young Willy, Dr. Vinton gently explained to the attentive Lincoln that death was not the end. "Your son is alive," (referring to the afterlife). Almost immediately, those words of comfort and hope were embraced, energizing anew the depressed Lincoln. From that moment on, Lincoln rose to lead our nation through its worst of days -- able to do so largely due to a new understanding of life and death. Coincidence, providence...not sure.

Reflecting upon the incredible conversations that have directed me to new paths, ideas, hopes and endings, I am trying to stay alert to the larger significance of seemingly ordinary interactions. The Boston sociologist Peter Berger says that there are 'signals of transcendence': ideas, conversations which enter our lives and point beyond themselves to a larger understanding of ourselves and our purposes.

The English literary critic, G.K. Chesterton, observed: "We all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it. Every stone or flower (or conversation) is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story...". Perhaps by being alert to the larger meaning of our existence we will find keys to understanding even the simplest of daily interactions and encounters. We are a part of something much bigger than we know. Yet these amazing conversations, occasional as they may be, reassure us that there is more to this journey that we realize. Occasionally we "get it" or get glimpses of it. The Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, called these glimpses 'sign posts', which point beyond themselves to the way forward.

Be alert...the signals are everywhere.

Carpe Diem.
Doug

 

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