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.
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
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