The Best Book I’ve Read in Years

The best books forever change the way you see something – and that is what The Overstory has done for me and my connection to nature – and specifically trees.

It is hard to describe, so I will start with these three  passages from different parts of the book:

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen…A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

As the lady officer in the station takes her fingerprints, she feels, for the first time since her father’s death, like she’s given the day everything it wanted.
 

The essay flickers under his fingers. He can’t follow it, can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or rubbish. His whole self is dissolving. All his rights and privileges, everything he owns. A great gift that has been his since birth is being taken away. It’s a grand luxurious act of self-deceit, an outright lie, that claim of Kant’s: “As far as nonhumans are concerned, we have no direct duties. All exists merely as means to an end. That end is man.”

The book is chiefly about connections – with each other, with previous and future generations and with nature and the living world. Trees play a prominent role, some might consider them characters or catalysts of the plot itself.

In reading the book (full disclosure, I’m not even finished yet), it has been an act of pure discovery and humility.  

It does not overtly advocate for us to change how we see the world or to become better stewards of our environment. Yet by allowing me to reflect on what it had to say, it has done just that.

It is embarrassing that I can’t name but a few trees I come across in nature or have such little appreciation for the life one has lived and given.  

To think that we pass trees that have been in our backyards since before the revolutionary war and don’t bat an eyelash or pause to marvel at it’s journey north to the sky, south into the soil and across one generation to the next.

We cut them down without hesitation. Waste their by products, like paper, without a second thought to its source.  Blind to how truly connected we are, we cut their noses and spite our own faces. 

Knowing the name of a thing is the first step to seeing its value and protecting it. Stopping to reflect on its journey the second. Sharing that journey with others, the third.

Consider this shared. Here is a link to buy a copy (it’s printed on recycled paper), or better yet, download it or reserve it at your local library.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Small Invisible Acts

A man wrote a short story that he could not get published. So he included it in 200 Christmas cards he sent out to friends and family.
 
One of the cards ended up in the hands of a film director. He made a film based on that story.
 
It lost a fortune and the director never made a successful film again. He ultimately had to sell his production company and with it the rights to the film.
 
The company and the rights were sold several more times. The eventual owner forgot to renew the copyright of the film.
 
Which meant that it was now free to anyone who wanted to air the film.
 
So PBS did.
 
And then other networks followed suit.
 
They aired it around Christmas because they needed cheap programming to compete with newer holiday specials.
 
The film was It’s a Wonderful Life.
 
The story behind how this classic came to be epitomizes its name and central message every bit as much as the better known plot of the film itself.
 
Small invisible acts by people known and unknown shape our lives.  It reminds us to send more such acts into the world – without thought or expectation of any grand outcome.

Although, as this story shows, this doesn’t mean that something grand won’t eventually happen.  And when it does and others learn the story behind the story, they too will feel all the more grateful and enriched.  Perhaps inspiring more simple invisible acts to made.
 
Thank you to Phillip Van Doren Stern for sending his story, “The Greatest Gift” out into the world and into our hearts.
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Why We Share

Every minute there are over 3,000,000 pieces of content posted online via social media. That’s doesn’t even include texts or emails like this one.

Most people keep what they see to themselves.  Only 18% of people share more than one piece of content a day.

When we do share content, the number one reason is to entertain our friends (insert cat video joke here).  Conversely, only 13% of people share something for the purposes of making their friends “feel something.”

With that as context, I hope that against these odds, you will both watch my recent TEDx talk and share it. At the same time, I will understand if you do neither.

I write these posts and share this talk because I truly believe that the act of reflecting on our lives can improve them – and those around us.  I’ve been moved when I receive notes from people saying that they have done just that.

Yet I often get caught in the ego trap of trying to measure their value through the numbers of opens, clicks and shares.

Case in point. Recently I was feeling pangs of disappointment that my TEDx talk didn’t break the Internet within the first hour. Then I received a message from a high school friend who I hadn’t spoken to in twenty years but had just watched the video. 

She wrote, “My heart is so happy. You’ve given me so much to think about and share with others.”

If not one more person views this talk, I can feel satisfied.

Yet, I hope so many more get the chance to feel the same way she did.

Please watch and share.

Thank you,

Bob

Thank The Forgotten

This Thursday most of us in America will find ourselves surrounded by family and friends celebrating Thanksgiving.

Perhaps during prayer or a quiet moment in our mind, we will offer silent thanks for those whose presence in our life has made us who we are.  Our parents, partners, children, family or close friends will top most lists. 

Hopefully more than a few will go the extra steps and give voice to those silent thoughts in ways that go beyond a cursory thanks but offer a level of specificity of why we are so grateful for their presence in our lives.
 
Doing this alone would honor the spirit of Thanksgiving and the effort of others on our behalf.   We could all use more open exchanges of gratitude and appreciation.
 
But what if we also took the few days leading up to Thanksgiving to reflect on and reach out to those whose role in our lives we might have forgotten?
 
Here are a few prompts, if you need them:

  • A teacher who inspired you
  • A friend who was there when you were down
  • A work colleague who made a connection to help you land a job
  • Anyone who through an act of faith, kindness or trust supported you when you needed it most.

 
If you’d like a little more inspiration, here is a link to a video I shared previously but earns repeated viewing. It’s Kevin Durant’s acceptance speech as Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Players Association.

Take note of both the breadth and depth of the gratitude and appreciation he is sharing for the world to hear.
 

Take ten minutes today, another ten tomorrow and a third ten on Wednesday. Use each to track down someone whose impact in your life you now remember.  It will make your Thanksgiving and theirs.
 
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Hidden Costs in Your Shopping Cart

It’s hard to argue with the convenience shopping carts have added to our shopping experience. But upon further inspection this seemingly innocuous invention may be both a cause and symptom of some of society’s gravest ills.

In 1937, Sylvan Goldman the owner of Humpty Dumpty grocery stores in Oklahoma created the first shopping cart by attaching wheels and two shopping baskets to a chair. His goal wasn’t shopper convenience but a desire for people to be able to carry more groceries around and out of his stores.

People initially resisted as men found them too effeminate and women didn’t want to push around something that felt like another stroller. To overcome this Goldman hired attractive models (both men and women) to use the carts in store.

His vision proved prosperous as studies now show that the mere presence of shopping carts results in more sales.  A fact that anyone who has ever used a shopping cart in Target can attest to. You walk in for toothpaste and shampoo and leave $200 later wondering what just happened.

And therein lies the first problem. We didn’t need a shopping cart, the store did.  

We used to shop to buy what we needed and could carry and now instead fill a cart with things we want and can wheel out of the store. This simple shift helped usher in a new era of consumer debt and waste.

For example, since the introduction of the shopping cart, household debt has quadrupled and the average American now throws out 300 pounds of food every year. Imagine the increased waste and debt that will come with checkout-less stores, now in pilot, where scanners just charge you as you add things to your cart, never needing to stop and pay before you leave.

Perhaps more alarming than the negative impact of shopping carts inside the store is what it says about us when they move outside of it.

During a recent late night grocery store trip, I encountered what looked like a graveyard of abandoned shopping carts, witnessing a perfectly fit man load his groceries into his car and pull away, adding to this collection.

I wondered if he thought about the person who could not pull into that parking space now littered with a cart or the employee who had trudge around in the rain collecting these from the far corners of the lot. A thoughtless gesture signaling  our disconnected times.

The reality is that convenience almost always comes with hidden costs. Some we blindly pay ourselves and others we carelessly thrust on our neighbors.

So the next time you’re shopping, maybe opt for a basket or at least return your cart.  Either way, you’ll be saving something.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Help!

John Lennon once referred to Help! as one of only two true songs he ever wrote with the Beatles (the other being Strawberry Fields). In contrast, so many of his other songs felt “phony” to him.
 
Both the lyrics and the backstory behind this Beatles’ hit contain many truths about the nature of help, and how hard it is to both give it and ask for it.
 

The song was written during a difficult time in Lennon’s life. He was depressed, felt overweight, and was struggling with his first marriage.
 
These very real and deep feelings were obscured by the upbeat melody. How effective was masking this cry for help? Lennon and McCartney first performance was in his living room – to Cynthia, Lennon’s afore-mentioned first wife.  Her response, “I like it. It’s very nice.”
 
The song begins by stating that who is providing the help matters. (I need somebody. Help, not just anybody)

The lyrics go on to show how the realization that we need help changes over time. Going from “so much younger than today I never needed anybody’s help in any way”  to “My independence seems to vanish in the haze”  and (But) but every now and then I feel so insecure  I know that I just need you like I never done before.”

The song points to the uncertainty of whether help is even possible, “help me if you can I’m feeling down” and the importance of being there for someone, “I do appreciate you being ‘round.”  The idea that your presence is valued even if you can’t help, seems implied.
 
And of course, it acknowledges that someone needs to want help in order to receive it “Now I find I’ve change my mind, I’ve opened up the doors.”
 
The desire to either seek help from or give help to those we love is instinctive.

Yet, how many of us have been in a position when we could not bring ourselves to ask those closest to us for assistance?  Or perhaps even worse, felt at a complete loss to find a way to help those we love the most. 

Each is a different form of help-less.
 
Originally, the song had a different title as there was another tune by the same name. That is until someone suggested adding an exclamation point. Hence, the official title Help!.  While I’m not usually a fan of this particular punctuation mark, it seems appropriate that a song about such a maddening topic, screams at you to listen to its truths.

Have a listen.

 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Why I Can’t Stand To See You Suffer

Several weeks ago, I was leaving Grand Central Terminal.  As I was going up a very long staircase, a young Asian woman was descending in the opposite direction on the escalator. Talking on her cell phone, I noticed a single tear slowly trickling down her cheek.

My initial inclination was to turn around and walk down the 40 steps or so to ask her if she was ok – her pain was that palpable. Thinking twice, I thought better of being some stranger chasing her down to intrude into her personal affairs.  Yet, something about the suffering of this tear-inducing phone call haunts me a little still.

When we see suffering, we are moved to want to end it. Research suggests one reason why is that when we see someone in pain, it activates the same regions of our brain that fire up when we experience pain ourselves.

In fact, the more acutely we feel pain ourselves, the more acutely we will be able to feel the pain of others.

This reciprocal relationship shows both the capacity and limitations of our empathy.

Naturally, we hope to minimize pain and suffering in our own lives. But does this also mean that we look to minimize our exposure to the pain and suffering of others?
 

Ask yourself this: In the last month, what have you done to end someone’s suffering and what have you done to avoid someone’s suffering?

One of my favorite quotes is from Helen Keller.

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”  

It is in many ways a hopeful reminder of our collective resiliency.

Yet perhaps ironically, Keller also wants us to hear that before the overcoming can happen, we must be willing to see the suffering. Despite how painful that might be.

Are You a Taker or a Giver?

A recent study observed groups of people in public settings.  They recorded that every ninety seconds someone does something for someone else. Hold a door.  Pass the salt.  Fulfill a random request. 

Interestingly, only one in every six instances included someone saying thank you. 

Some would say this is a classic example of some people who are selfish or ungrateful. While others are by nature are more selfless and altruistic.

Or to put it another way, there are those who give and those who take.

But before passing judgment consider this nugget. The roles being played were fluid. People would both give and take. The same people who performed a nice gesture also didn’t say thank you.

Rather than being proof of bad manners it was actually evidence of strong social connections. People gave because they know eventually they would take. Others took knowing they would later give. 

It was the fluidity that we see in our closest relationships. We sometimes say thank you, especially with larger gestures, or in situations where we want to model good behavior.  But other times, we would just accept the kind gesture without acknowledgment and the giver would be cool with it.  Why?  With the ins and outs of everyday life there are unwritten rules and expectations about reciprocity.

But with low levels of trust or weakened social bonds, the strands of reciprocity can splinter.  We see people who maybe take more than they give or visa versa. The takers are saying, “I don’t trust you to give back.” The givers are thinking “if I give more maybe they will too”, and when they don’t they grow more resentful.

This can lead to a slippery slope where relationships between partners, within families, communities, companies and entire societies disintegrate.  Leading to seemingly intractable issues around inequality and fairness.

On this Memorial Day, we have to look no further than to our soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice – their lives. They did so knowing that the person next to them was willing to do the same.

In all of our relationships, it is healthy to examine how each of us gives and takes.  Is there balance or are the scales beginning to tip too far one way or the other?

These are important conversations that can be a starting point to a healthier balance.  Perhaps you’ll realize that if someone isn’t saying thank you, it’s not because they aren’t grateful but because they feel so close to you that the appreciation goes without saying.

What Does It Take to Save a Life?

This week buried beneath the din of politics and conflict was a brief article in the New York Times featuring an 81-year-old Australian man who was donating blood for the last time in his life.

He started giving blood as a young man – a way of paying back those who had donated the blood he needed to survive surgery as a 14-year-old boy.

He would go on to give blood every few weeks for over 60 years. The total number of times he has donated blood?  1,173.

While remarkable, this is only the beginning of the story.

At one point, it was discovered that his blood contained a rare anti-body that was essential for a life-saving drug called Anti-D given to expectant mothers to keep their babies healthy.

The Australian Red Cross estimates that the blood of this man, James Harrison, now retired, has saved more than 2.4 million babies from a potentially fatal disease.

If not amazed yet, among that number are included two of his own grandchildren. You see, his daughter received the drug with his anti-bodies as well.

Now rewind back to the beginning of this story. This remarkable journey began with nameless strangers who first donated blood to save James’s life. He then decided to give back –values instilled in him through his upbringing. 

Researchers then discovered something in his blood that was precious. Companies then made the drugs available to doctors who with nurses administered them to mothers.  All made affordable through a single payer health care system.

James’s actions are heroic. His dedication to giving back is awe-inspiring. At the same time, hidden in this amazing tale are the contributions of nameless others.
 

Like these nameless others, it is doubtful any of us will ever know how many lives we will save or impact at all. But this story is a reminder that it starts with a blind gift. The beauty of not knowing, but hoping that this gift will connect with others.

It is a sentiment, embodied in the words of Robert F. Kennedy who  said that those who act to improve the life of another or stand up for an ideal, “sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current …”

Here’s to all the tiny ripple’s among us and the currents they will create.