Saturday, February 28, 2015

Revisiting an Old Friend – Willy Was His Name

Like many of you, over the past week or so I have been laid up with a nasty flu bug.  Too tired to do much of anything except sleep, I did have ample time to think – about all kinds of things. Since I have been focusing lately on dysfunctional families and how we might navigate through holidays and visits with difficult family members, I think it is time for a shift to positive relationships. I am blessed to have had many close friends who over the years who have helped shape my life and how I approach many of life’s challenges today. 

I was a skinny eight-year-old just getting off a train I had been riding for a few hours – all alone, wondering what in the world was in store for me. With a bunch of other young boys, I boarded a bus to take me to summer camp in the New Hampshire woods. We were at a crossroads called White River Junction and wrestling with duffle bags that outweighed most of us. We pulled into what would turn out to be the magic of Camp Pemigewassett – my summer residence for the next five years.

Even at the age of eight I was imbued with a natural calm and keen sense of adventure. Willy was the camp counsellor who was in charge of all of us junior campers. He was strict, but not unreasonably so. After all, he was in charge of some serious cargo. Willy was a Princeton graduate and a schoolmaster professionally. He coached baseball – a sport in which  admittedly I never had any interest. I was a tennis player when it came to sports, but most of my waking hours were spent at the Nature Lodge. Collecting hundreds of specimens of any imaginable living organism – mostly plants, moths and butterflies occupied many formative hours of exploration.

Willy had little interest in the Nature Lodge and upon reflection was the serious guy. He was very well respected by all of the other counsellors, and feared by most of the campers – almost to a fault, except for me. We developed a close bond out of which grew a true friendship. Over the years after camp we exchanged Christmas cards. He even came over to visit me once at my boarding school. Being a typically emotionally stunted schoolboy, I did not understand the fragility of friendships.

Then one year, I received no Christmas card. I was 17. My mother handed me a letter hand addressed to me. I did not recognize the handwriting, but noticed the postmark was Princeton, New Jersey. Willy’s family lived in Princeton, and the letter was from his brother – another camp counsellor. Willy was dead. He had died from a brain tumour. This was my first experience losing what I can only describe as a kindred spirit. I was shattered. I had no one to turn to for consolation. I had no choice but to just move on.

I think of Willy every Christmas. I see his infectious smile in my minds eye. I remember that he was the one person to whom I would turn if I needed someone to talk to. He was the one who would bring me a treat of bubble gum. He clapped the loudest when I won nature awards – which were numerous. He was my safety net.

So lying in bed wondering about what to write about, his memory came flooding back. I began thinking. What was it about our paths having crossed that left such an indelible impression on me? I’m not sure I have it figured out, but what I do know is that he is not alone in my mind. I have other friends who were snatched away from this physical plane far too early. The light bulb that went off in my mind was that I have gone through life with blinders on, my eyes never wide open to the value of true friendship.

In looking at this dynamic from the point of view of the Six Pillars of Civility, the two principles that stand out are awareness and gratitude. How often are we fully tuned in to our close friendships? How often do we take the time to be grateful for these friendships? In Willy’s case, I am discovering that it is never too late to connect – the mind is a powerful tool. And although I cannot thank him personally, I can be thankful knowing I was lucky enough to have had such an awesome mentor in my life - now that I realize it.

How many Willies have you been lucky enough to know? Hold them close; visit with them from to time and smile when you do. They’re smiling back.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Six Pillars of Civility - Gratitude

Gratitude is the fifth precept of what I refer to as the Six Pillars of Civility. Introduced over the past month, these principles are what I consider to be the fundamental building blocks of any healthy community.

'Thank you' is one of the first phrases we teach our children. This indicates that culturally, showing gratitude is important to us, in fact this acknowledgement plays an important role in every civil society. If we become numb to gratitude, a domino effect takes place, and civility unravels, leaving awareness, compassion, and humility in its wake.

Gratitude is an emotional state of mind. It is a feeling that requires action.  Such action can take the form of thanking someone for an act of kindness. Or it can also be as simple as sitting quietly and experiencing the feeling of appreciation. 

Gratitude is not a one-way street to be fully realized. In a previous column, I discussed the importance of “you’re welcome”. This simple phrase completes the exchange with validation and respect.

Unfortunately, entitlement and avarice invade too many of our encounters, and we forget not only our manners, but what it means to take a moment to give thanks, and not to just take whatever we want. We take too much for granted - our health, our access to food and shelter, good friends, a comfortable life style, and the list goes on. I wonder what the world would be like if we took some time every day to be grateful for our many blessings - including life itself.

A local entrepreneur, Adrian Nadeau, feels strongly enough about the importance of expressing gratitude that he offers a daily opportunity ( to express in writing what we are grateful for. I receive an email every morning reminding me to express my gratitude. Admittedly I start the New Year off diligently writing a short phrase or sentence stating what I am grateful for. It may be something as simple as a good friend, the warmth of sunshine on my face, or a delicious meal. I doubt I am alone in feeling that what I should acknowledge as something to be grateful for needs to be something more significant. This is not the case. In fact it is the very opposite. The very point of this column and this principle is that we need to be grateful for everything – large and small alike.

Although it is difficult, if not impossible at times, even life’s most difficult challenges deserve our gratitude. Without these moments in our lives, we would not grow or develop into responsible community members.

Gratitude is also a critical component in any healthy, sustainable work environment. It is an action that must come from the top down, and it must flow freely, and be encouraged enthusiastically. Gratitude is contagious. When it is expressed with sincerity, it has the amazing power to transform an uninspired business and work place into a productive, profitable one. Gratitude serves as a vital nutrient to everything it touches.

In the highly competitive business environment in which most of us work, praise is often in short supply, but the need is actually tremendous. Employees work far more effectively when they are encouraged through signs of gratitude that the work they are doing is appreciated. Not only does the work need to be acknowledged as ‘a job well done’, the message needs to be delivered every day. Any “boss” who does not take the time to praise his or her workers, colleagues, or even clients is not using the most powerful tool he possesses.

The positive results of gratitude happen every day in our lives. It is up to us to take the moments to express and to receive the benefits of being grateful. Stop and notice what is around you, and see the goodness in the people you meet each day. What you come away with is a feeling of peace, and perhaps the discovery of something new for which to be grateful.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Six Pillars of Civility - Responsibility

Responsibility is the fourth building block of the six pillars of civility. Taking responsibility for our commitments is necessary for the society in which we live to survive in a civil way. If we all shirked our responsibilities, chaos would ensue. However, we need to discern what is our responsibility and what is not. Too often we take on the burden of other people’s responsibilities when in fact the matter is none of our business. I know how this works because I am guilty of doing just that. I am naturally a fixer. Fixers tend to meddle inappropriately because we think we can be helpful. This isn’t usually the case however, and such acts most often lead to conflict.

Have you ever noticed how often people fail to take responsibility for their own actions, but rarely hesitate to let other people exactly what they should be doing? Most of us fall prey to this trap from to time. We rationalize this by saying we care about the other person and don’t want them to make the same mistakes we’ve made, or we want to help them save time or money. The fact of the matter is that these challenges are not ours; they are theirs. Just as we learned from making mistakes, so they must be allowed to learn from their mistakes.

As adults, the first real responsibility we have is for our children and ourselves. This includes how we conduct ourselves; how we relate to others; and how we fit into our community. However, even early on in life we are usually given responsibility for helping around the house. Sometimes these tasks are rewarded with a weekly allowance. We take responsibility for certain chores. This teaches us the value of our obligations in our homes. These tasks are not always rewarded with cash, but are simply seen as pulling one’s own weight. Others are relying on us to do something, to be responsible, and we quickly learn that by keeping up our end of the bargain makes for smooth sailing. Letting down our end of the bargain causes grief for us and for others.

Building on the pillars I have previously discussed, when we find ourselves guilty of intruding in someone else’s life, while examining our motives, we need to have compassion for ourselves and for those whom we feel compelled to help. Such impositions usually come with an unhealthy dose of judgment. This is the perfect time to check our humility gauge. This is an important time to be more aware of just how we are affecting someone else. Are we in fact being helpful, or just being nosy, judgmental, and controlling? Are we bullying them into adopting our path, denying them the right to follow their own?  

There are times when we do not take responsibility for our actions, nor are we willing to accept the consequences for our actions. How often do we blame others for our own unfortunate situations? This refusal to own up and be prepared to accept the consequences for our actions leads to an unrealistic state. This false existence manifests itself as living a lie or lies, and can cause dishonesty, incivility, and rudeness.

No matter what our situation may be, we almost always share some responsibility, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little; and discovering this unlocks the mysteries to many of life's quandaries.

Of course, there is always an alternate to grabbing too much responsibility for someone else’s predicaments, which is simply 'mind your own business'. As much as we think we know what's best for others, it's not our responsibility to make their choices for them. Allow people to make the choice that is right for them.

In the business arena, misplaced responsibility – as I refer to it – can be disastrous! My best advice is to err on the side of caution. Take as much personal responsibility as is reasonably possible for any situation. And avoid like the plague giving your unsolicited opinion on how others should conduct business or behave. Don’t forget the law of physics that states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is going to happen whether we force it or not.

Distinguishing between the time to help or not to help is a natural way to take responsibility in any situation. This quality is developed during childhood and adolescence. As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, or those for whom we care, is the ability to discern the difference between what is our business and what is not. This seems like a simple enough matter, but too often we don’t place a high enough priority on this fundamental principle.

Whether at home or at work, having a clear understanding of the importance of the pillar of responsibility, and acting accordingly, will impact your success, your level of happiness, and the mutual respect we as human beings depend upon so strongly. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Six Pillars of Civility - Awareness

Awareness is the third pillar of civility in this series, The Six Pillars of Civility. These fundamental human qualities are all required in equal balance in our lives in order for us to help build and sustain a healthy community. In the fast-paced, time-starved lifestyle many of us choose to follow, being aware of the people and events around us, and how we affect them seems to vanish. I view this as a tragedy and a real danger to any community where civility is the desired tone.

How often are we too busy to congratulate our friends and family for reaching certain milestones and accomplishments in their lives? None of us seems to be immune from this affliction today. We forget birthdays and anniversaries; and we don’t seem to have time to write simple thank you notes. A lot of us can’t even manage to RSVP an invitation. Some might ask, “What’s the big deal?” In my opinion, the “big deal” is the erosion to friendships and important connections that we as human beings desire and need. A healthy society requires many, many connections. None of us can live in a vacuum. We need one another for survival. Does it not make sense for awareness to be a much higher priority in our daily lives? Could we potentially be happier as a result?

I have found that by taking the time to check my surroundings on a regular basis allows me to engage even more attentively with my associates. I can be more conscious of my place in the world and attuned to people and things around me. With awareness comes security and confidence. We cannot forget that as human beings, we make mistakes, we have personal challenges, and we want to succeed. With greater awareness, we accommodate compassion and humility, the first two pillars of civility discussed in these pages previously.

Too often we glide through life, whether at home or at work, with no real sense of what’s happening. Sometimes we are oblivious because we are so wrapped up in our own personal lives that it appears that we don’t actually care about other people. We miss out by elimination, and too narrow a focus.

When this happens in the workplace, feelings of isolation can develop, bringing progress to a screeching halt. It can also impede our ability to succeed in our chosen career. Teamwork is usually a vital component to a healthy and encouraging business environment. Teamwork requires an acute awareness of what our other teammates are doing. Without this finely honed skill, everyone suffers.

Awareness brings to mind two familiar phrases. One is 'deer in headlights'. The other is 'stop to smell the roses'. How often are we caught unawares; and how many times do we feel life is rushing by us too quickly to stop and really enjoy what we are doing, and with whom we are doing it - even if it is ourselves? Slowing down to allow the blur of life to come into focus actually helps us to achieve more of our goals, whatever they may be – a happy family, a successful career, even both?

Taking the time to assess what we are doing, what our real intentions are for doing it, and how this all impacts those around us is how we can live most happily and work most effectively. Awareness leads to respectful interactions with everyone we encounter. This dynamic is essential to maintaining a healthy productive work environment, as well as in familial or social situations. Retaining the best talent in any given circumstance requires awareness, respectful communication, and compassion.

How aware are you of the impact you have on your fellow human beings? Take a step back and examine the importance of awareness. If you want to improve the climate in your life, raise your level of awareness. People will notice.