Who We Are

Last month, I said, “Heroes will rise.”

Two weeks ago, I said, “We have always been at our best when things are the worst.”

These facts were clearly evident sixteen years ago.

I still remember walking the sacred ground near the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the tragedy there. Many images were burned into my mind but the one that endures is the memory of men and women in uniform – rescue workers and medical technicians – methodically moving through the destruction, sorting through mountains of debris.

It was as if the planes that struck the towers opened a window to our soul. Heroes emerged.

All they did is what they were called to do – and what they were called to do was often nothing more than their jobs. It was the extraordinary ordinariness of their efforts that was most compelling.

They had no grand designs or elaborate plans. The scope of their effort was the length of their arms. Their long-term plan extended no further than the nearest burden. Yet, in the process of simply doing what needed to be done, millions of pounds of concrete, metal, and glass, were moved – one piece at a time.

In the months that followed, seventy percent of all Americans made a contribution to the relief effort – a response unprecedented in world history. More than 60 percent of all Americans made a financial contribution to the relief effort.  Many others volunteered time, gave blood, opened their homes, and contributed household items and supplies.

If we needed further proof of who we are, we got it last week in the response to Hurricane Harvey.  We are already starting to see it again in response to Hurricane Irma.

More than 17,000 people were rescued during Hurricane Harvey in East Texas. Significantly, many of the rescuers were neighbors and volunteers who simply did what needed to be done.  Since then, millions have been raised for the relief effort.

Hurricane Irma left some 6 million people in Florida without power.  We saw the utility trucks coming to help – some from as far away as Indiana and Las Vegas – before the storm had even cleared the state.

It will take years to recover, but we will be there for them.

That’s who we are. That’s what we do.

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Grace

Peter Grace was the grandson of the founder of W. R. Grace and Company.   Peter took the helm of the billion-dollar company while still in his thirties and ran the company for 48 years.  He was the longest serving CEO of a public company.

When I asked him to tell me his greatest life lesson, he surprised me by saying that as a boy he was tutored by Father James Keller, founder of The Christophers.

“Whenever I came to him to describe some great horror I had heard about or some injustice in the world, Father Keller’s response was always the same,” Peter said.  “As I finished describing whatever caused my concern, he would say — ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’”

This is the most persistent question in life.  We were born, America was born to respond.

It is no accident the Declaration of Independence begins with these words:  We the people. It is a claim of right and responsibility.  We have to say something.  We have do something.

And we have the power.

Consider the possibilities of our lives:  The average life span in America today is 78.74 years. In seventy-eight years there are about 28,740 days.  If we reach out to just two people a day, each of us could touch more than 57,480 lives – that’s 57,480 lives we can improve with a kind word, 57,480 lives we can brighten with something as simple as a smile, 57,480 lives we can change with some small gift of ourselves.  And each of the lives we touch can reach out and touch a similar number – 57,480 times 57,480 – in a geometric progression without end.

This is how the world is changed.  Your smile, your smallest kindness affects the universe.

God clearly doesn’t not intend for us all to be celebrated, popular, or famous, but we are all born rich.  We are abundant in our opportunities to act on behalf of each other.

Every moment provides a chance.  Every situation presents a challenge.  Every problem is an opportunity.

At every moment, we have a choice:

Do we want to add more love to the world or less?

Do we want add more honesty to the world or less?

Do we want to add more forgiveness to the world or less?

Do we want to add more gratitude to the world or less?

Do we want to add more justice to the world or less?

Do we want to be part of the community of hope or give in to fear and despair?

We shape the world by our response.   America is and always will be what we are.

 

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Brothers

My brother, Val, passed away two weeks ago.   He was my big brother, big in every sense of the word.

Val was 6 feet tall when he was 12. He finally topped out at 6’ 4”.  I was three years younger and of average height – if not a little small for my age.  I didn’t reach my full height until college.

During our early years, we tried to kill each other on a regular basis.  We fought, as brothers do, about everything and anything.

One of our on-going quarrels had to do with the light in the bedroom we shared.  I was a voracious reader.  I would start a book and stay up until I finished it, often reading far into the night.  Val complained the light kept him awake and responded by opening our bedroom window, letting in mosquitoes, moths, and half of flying creation.  I would tell him to close the window.  He would tell me to turn out the light.  Often or not, a fight would break out somewhere in between.

One night I fell asleep with the light on.  Val got up to turn off the light and noticed my mouth was open.  Out of irritation, he took the opportunity to teach me a lesson.  He caught a live moth and dropped it in my mouth.  I woke with a start and then threw up on him.

Largely, we entertained our selves by aping whatever we saw on television or in the movies. We watched wrestling with our grandfather so when my brother grabbed me by the seat of my pants and threw me into a corner bedpost, splitting my head open, I knew what to do. I hit him with a folding chair.  Chipped two teeth.

When we saw Clark Gable playing a big game hunter catch a tiger in a Burmese tiger trap, we thought that was pretty cool and had to give it a shot – never mind Burma was on the other side of the world and no one could remember the last time anyone saw a Tiger in Utah.  We dug a pit in a vacant lot between our house and the Parmaleys – our neighbors to the left – and camouflaged it with weeds and dirt.  Two days later, we were excited to see the trap had been sprung and disappointed when we found the pit empty.  We decided we hadn’t dug the hole deep enough until we found out Mrs. Parmaley had fallen in and broken a leg.

The movie Ivanhoe inspired us to organize our own jousting tournament.  We invited the entire neighborhood to compete.  We cut off the end our mothers’ brooms, sharpened the ends as best we could, and rode full tilt at each other on our bikes, trying to unseat each other.  It is a wonder we didn’t kill someone.

Westerns were far and away our favorite form of entertainment.  When we weren’t watching cowboys and Indians, we were played cowboys and Indians.  Once Val let me be the cowboy, a treat because everyone knows the cowboys always win.  My excitement disappeared with I found myself “tied to the stake” in the coal shed.  Val piled some kindling at my feet, lit a fire, and left when mom call lunch.  I wriggled free and joined him without thinking much more about it until the fire department arrived.  We burned the coal shed to the ground.

The fighting diminished as we got older and stopped when Val went off to college.  I followed him to Washington and attended GWU for no better reason than Val was there. He was a political science major.  I became a political science major.  He went to law school.  I went to law school.  And, of course, we both went to work on Capitol Hill.

Marty Walsh, our friend of long-standing, gave me his perspective on our relationship last week.  “You and Val were more than brothers,” Marty said. “You were each other’s inspiration.  He was Butch Cassidy, you were the Sundance Kid.”

In many ways, Marty is right.  When Val wanted to test the quality of care in Medicaid clinics, I was the one who led a team of investigators posing as Medicaid patients for a year while Val provided political cover for the effort.  When Val said it would be neat if we could get a look at the second set of books we knew suspect clinics kept, I was the one who found a clinic for sale in the Bronx, posed as a buyer, and tried to get a look at the real books, winding up with a mobster taking me for an enlightening ride in his car, his German Shepherd sitting on the floor between my legs, his head inches from my crotch.

At one point, we held parallel positions at the House and Senate.  Val was Counsel and Director of Oversight for the Democrats in the House.  I held the same position working for the Republicans who controlled the Senate.  A hired gun came into my office with his tail in a bunch one morning.  He said those guys on the House side were giving his client a hard time.  I asked him if the lead investigator was a big guy and he said, “Yes.”  Was he tough and aggressive?  “Yes. Yes.”   Sure sounds like my brother, I said. I wouldn’t mess with him if I were you.   We never saw him again.

When one of the six trade associations representing the home health industry approached Val looking for an executive director, he recruited me.  Four years later, when we merged these associations into the National Association for Homecare, I recruited him.  Two years later, he recruited me to run a related foundation.  In all, we worked side by side for more than 30 years.

As I think of Val now, the words of Henri Nouwen come to mind. “The great challenge remains to find the eternal in the midst of the temporary,” Nouwen said, “to touch what remains in what passes and to love the ever living God in the love of the quickly passing family of people.”

Amen to that, Big Brother.  Rest in peace.  Life pulled us apart from time to time, but we were always at our best when we were together.  We will be together again.

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Here and the Hereafter

One of the great regrets of my life is that my parents never had a chance to meet my wife.  My father had lectured me repeatedly through my young years  telling me to make sure I found the right woman.  He said it was the most important decision I would ever make.  My mother simply wanted me to find a woman who would love me as much as she did.

It took me a while, but I succeeded.

It was therefore more than appropriate that my wife surprised me with a portrait of my parents on our first Christmas together.   She said the painting was done by Simmie Knox,  I had never heard of Knox but I soon learned he was a painter of national repute.  He has portraits hanging in the Supreme Court, the White House, and a number of national galleries.

We placed the portrait in a place of honor over the sofa in our living room.  When our son came along a few years later, our family would sit there together watching the things that children like to watch.

One day when he was about five, our son looking up at the portrait, stared at it for a moment, then he turned to me and said:

“You know I knew your mother before I knew you.”

His comment came out of the blue and caught me completely by surprise.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“We used to play together in heaven,” he said, “before she picked me out for you.”

Our son doesn’t remember that now, nor does he  remember saying it; but I have never been able to forget it.

The universe is alive.  Life is seamless.  It stretches forward into the future and back beyond the boundaries of time.  There is no beginning.  There is no end.

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Heroes Will Rise

The political climate in Washington is so bad it has become increasingly difficult for me to watch the evening news.  I grew up on Capitol Hill and spent half my life working there.  I left when I saw Congress becoming increasingly polarized and dysfunctional. It is of little comfort to say I saw it coming.

I remember Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey.  When I came to Washington, they were the polar extremes.  You couldn’t be further to the right than Goldwater or further to the left than Humphrey.  They disagreed on just about everything, but they managed to disagree without being disagreeable.   They were friends and treated each other with respect.

Frank Moss was my patron and mentor. In his first election, he defined himself by chosing principle over party, turning down a contribution from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that would have ensured his election when he learned there were strings attached.  They said their support was conditioned on a promise that they could have his vote whenever the lobbyists providing the cash wanted it.  Moss said, “No”, beat the odds, and won anyway.  In the process, he earned the respect of his colleagues and a reputation for integrity.

My friend, Arthur Flemming, served every president from Coolidge to Clinton. I used to enjoy asking him to compare them.  Particularly memorable is his description of the way they practiced their faiths and what it said about them:  Eisenhower issued a standing order to never turn down an invitation from a religious group if it was possible for him to be where they wanted him to be.  Rather than go to church, Nixon, in keeping with his paranoia, initiated the practice of bringing religious leaders into the White House to hold services in the Rose Garden.  The Clintons went to the same church (Foundry United Methodist) as the Doles until two things happened – word got out they were there together and Bob Dole decided to run for President.   The fact that they couldn’t be seen worshipping together said volumes about how far we have devolved.

Of all the roles in all the administrations, Arthur said he most enjoyed serving as Secretary of what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower. “Every day I went to work I knew I was going to be able to do something that would help a lot of people,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get to work.”

Claude Pepper’s career included three terms in the Senate and then a return to Congress at the age of 65.  He served another twenty-six years in the House of Representatives.  He applied Ockham’s Razor for me, distilling political philosophy and defining his purpose in three words:  Make Things Better.

John Heinz didn’t have to be there.  As the heir to the Heinz Company, he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do but he chose public service and talked with pride about his grandfather’s role in establishing the Food and Drug Administration.

I remember clearly a hearing we held focusing on a nursing home chain that had killed more than a dozen patients by withholding the nutritional supplement – Ensure.  The product was expensive, the President of the chain explained, and his company had to make a profit.  Surely Heinz, as a businessman, would understand that.  I still remember the fire in Heinz’ eyes when he turned to me and said, “Give me whatever you have.  I want to bury this guy.”

These were men of principle.  Agree with their politics or not, no one questioned their honor or integrity.   I can’t help wondering where they have gone.   But when I do at times like this when it hard to turn on the television, I remember one of the enduring truths of humanity –  We are at our best when things are the worst.

“I understand finally, why the love of God created men responsible for one another and gave them hope as a virtue,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote.  “Since it made of each of them the ambassador of the same God, in hands of each rests the salvation of all.”

Heroes will rise.

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