The Pattern of the Universe

images-1A hundred years ago, a Scottish farmer heard a cry from a swamp near his farm. When he ran to see what was happening, he found a boy stuck to his waist in the muck, struggling to set himself free. Without hesitation, the farmer extended a hand and rescued the boy from what otherwise would have been a slow and terrifying death.

The following day a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s humble cottage. A well–dressed man stepped out and introduced himself as the nobleman who owned a nearby estate. He said he was the father of the boy the farmer had rescued and that he had come to thank and repay the farmer.

The Nobleman held out a bag of coins but the farmer immediately replied, “I can’t accept payment for what I did. It wouldn’t be right. Besides, I have a son of my own.”

At that moment as if he had been listening for his cue, the farmer’s son came to the door.

“Is that your boy?” the nobleman asked and when the farmer nodded went on to say, “Let me repay you then in this fashion. You have helped my son. Let me help yours. Let me pay for your son’s education. If he is anything like his father, he will make us all proud.”

The farmer agreed and the farmer’s son fulfilled the nobleman’s prophecy. He excelled in school and went to St. Mary’s Hospital in London to study medicine. He later earned international acclaim in the scientific community for his medical discoveries and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in l945.

Ironically, at about the same time, the son of the nobleman once more found his life in danger. This time, he was stricken with pneumonia. As he hovered on the brink of life, his physicians administered a new drug called penicillin and the boy, now a man known to the world as Winston Churchill, was again saved.

The benevolent nobleman was his father, Lord Randolph Churchill.   The farmer’s name was Fleming. His son was Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

The patterns of the universe are not always so clear but they are always present.

The universe is one piece. No good deed is ever wasted. Causes become effects. Effects become causes. What goes out from us comes back to us in equal kind, measure, and degree.

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Believing is Seeing

imgresWhen they began building DisneyWorld, the management team was immediately caught up in a raging debate. The question was how to proceed and in which order to tackle the buildings that formed this enormous construction challenge.

The technicians said the only way the project made sense was to proceed systematically, working from one end to the other, building roads and infrastructure as they went. The dreamers, led by Disney, wanted to start in the middle.

Disney wanted to build the castle first. Others argued it was the least practical structure in the project and the most difficult to construct.  They said it should be held for future construction, the icing on the cake.

Disney responded it was the most important structure in the project and the only way to make the dream come alive.  Disney knew that often we have to believe it before we can see it.  He wanted the construction crews to see their goal and know where they were going.

In much the same way, a fire is kept burning in many churches as a sign of God’s presence. For essentially the same reason, the gods of Greek mythology placed hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box of troubles.  Faith opens the door despair closes and fuels hope. Hope sees the possibilities presented by our problems.

Believing is seeing.  What we think and believe we do and become.

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Jefferson’s Canons of Conduct

imagesFifty-three years ago at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, President Kennedy began his remarks by observing, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Jefferson was born on this day 272 years ago. He was the closet thing to a Renaissance man America has ever produced.

Among other things, Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, and the author the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.

In 1825, Jefferson sent his grandson a letter, listing a “Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life.”

To mark his birthday, Jefferson’s canons of conduct are copied below:

  1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
  2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
  3. Never spend your money before you have it.
  4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
  5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  6. We never repent of having eaten too little.
  7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
  9. Take things always by their smooth handle.
  10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, count to a hundred.
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A Sign From God

imagesViktor Frankl is the only man I know who voluntarily entered the concentration camps.

Viktor was born 110 years ago — March 26, 1905. He was the founder of Logotherapy and the author of 32 books, including Man’s Search for Meaning. Now in its hundredth American printing, this slender volume has been named one of the ten most influential books in the English language.

After reading Man’s Search for Meaning, I sent Dr. Frankl a letter expressing my admiration. His book had a profound impact on me and I told him so. To my surprise, he answered my letter with a personal note raising questions that encouraged a response. We exchanged letters several times after that before I found an opportunity to meet him. He became a friend and mentor who had a profound influence on my life.

Once in a quiet moment, he told me how he found his path, how he came to be in the concentration camps, and the value of that “abyss experience.”

“When the Nazis came to power,” he said, “I was the head of the neurological department of a Jewish hospital in Vienna. Anti-Semitism was increasing daily and my family and I could see what was coming. Like many people, we began preparing to get out. I applied for a visa to come to America where I could continue my work.

“At the eleventh hour as the Nazis were closing in, the U.S. Consulate informed me a visa had been granted for me to emigrate to the United States. This was the moment I had anticipated for several years and I rushed down to the consulate with great excitement. My enthusiasm fled when I realized the visa was only valid for one. I was confronted by the fact that if I escaped to America, I would have to leave my parents behind.”

In despair Viktor left the embassy and walked in a daze to a park nearby. Covering the yellow Star of David he was compelled to wear on his chest, he sat on the park bench in agony wondering what to do.

“On one hand,” he said, “was safety, the opportunity to work, and nurture my ‘brain child’ — logotherapy. On the other hand, there was the responsibility to take care of my parents by staying with them in Vienna and, rather than leaving them to their fate share it with them.”

What would his parents do if he left, he thought. What could he do if he stayed? Would it make any difference to them or would all be lost?

“At best, if I stayed with my family, I would have the opportunity to be with them and protect them from being deported but who knew for how long before the Gestapo came for us all,” Viktor said. “If I stayed, my work and theories would perish with me.”

Viktor said he sat there, meditating and praying, for more than an hour. Finally, he realized he could not resolve the matter and got up to go home. As he left, he thought that if there ever was a time that a man could use a sign from God, this would be such a time. The issue was beyond human resolution.

Almost immediately upon entering the apartment he shared with his family, Frankl noticed a stone, a piece of marble, on the mantle over the fireplace. He called his father and asked him, “What is this and why is it here?”

“Oh, Viktor,” his father said with some excitement. “I forgot to tell you. I picked it up this morning on the site where the largest synagogue in Vienna stood before the Nazis tore it down.”

“And why did you bring it home?” Viktor asked.

“‘Because I noticed that it is part of the two tablets whereon the Ten Commandments are engraved – you remember, above the altar?’ my father said. In fact, one could see, on the piece of marble, one single Hebrew letter engraved and gilded. ‘Even more,’ my father said, ‘I can tell to which of the Ten Commandments this letter refers because it serves the abbreviation for only one.'”

“I looked at it and had my answer,” Viktor said. “It was the commandment that says, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ At that moment, my decision was clear. I gave up my visa and stayed in Austria. A few months later, the Gestapo closed the hospital. My whole family was arrested and taken to the concentration camps. My mother died in the gas chamber of Auschwitz. My brother died in a coal mine near Auschwitz. My father, weakened from starvation, finally succumbed to pneumonia.”

The only satisfaction in this was that Viktor was able to visit his father in his barracks and be with him in his final hours. As a physician, he could not help but notice the terminal lung edema setting in. He saw his father in pain. He heard his struggle for breath and knew when it was time to use the single ampoule of morphine he had smuggled into the camp.

Viktor waited and watched until the morphine worked. When it showed relief he asked his father if there was anything more he could do for him. They talked for a moment until his father fell peacefully into the sleep Viktor knew would be followed by death.

As he left, Viktor said he knew he would never see his father again, but rather than sadness, he found himself experiencing happiness to a degree he had never known before. There in the concentration camps, the most miserable of experiences, Viktor found his greatest joy. He had honored his father. He had been there for him and stayed with him to the last and as a result had been able to ease his father’s pain.

At the same time, in ways he could not have anticipated, the decision to enter the concentration camp advanced his career and established the credibility of his work.  For it was there that Frankl found the laboratory to test and prove his theories.

Freud believed that if you subject the mass of humanity to deprivation, human differences would be minimized and man would be reduced to fundamental desires, animal instincts, and a single-minded pursuit of survival at all cost.

“Freud was spared to get to know the concentration camps,” Viktor observed. “But we who were there saw not the uniformity he predicted. People became ever more different when confronted by such a tragic situation. They unmasked their real selves – both the swine and the saint.

“In truth, I found it is the orientation toward a meaning to fulfill in the future – after liberation – that more than any other factor gave people the greatest chance to survive even this abyss experience. It is evidence of what I have come to call the self-transcendent quality of a human being – that is, a truly human being is never primarily or basically concerned with himself or herself, or anything within himself or herself; but rather is reaching out of themselves, into the world, toward a meaning to fulfill or another human being to love.”

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The Lesson of the Tree

imagesWhen I was a boy of eight or nine, I was walking through the woods in the mountains near home with my Father when we came upon a large tree that had been cut to clear the path. My father pointed to the rings at the cross section where the tree had been cut and asked if I knew their significance.

I gave him the conventional answer telling him I knew the rings of the tree reflected the tree’s age. My father said that was right and then he expanded that observation in a way I have never been able to forget.

“If you look closely,” he said, “it can also tell you something of the tree’s history.”

Dad pointed to a narrow band near the tree’s center.

“That tells you this was a tough year for this tree. If you count back the rings and determine the date you will probably find that it was a dry year or that the tree faced some other challenge to its growth. Conversely, the broad band tells you the tree had a year of expansive growth.”

“But what is most important is the pattern,” he said. “Broad bands almost invariably follow narrow bands. That’s because in the dry years and difficult periods the tree had to put its roots down deeper in order to survive.”

Like the tree, we are all at times challenged and pushed to the limits of our existence. If we are to survive and grow, we must reach deep and draw on the best part of ourselves. Those who cannot find a purpose in their pain are diminished by it. Those who do are strengthened by the process.

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