What really matters

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2010 at 3:31 am

So I was checking out some tweets on twitter and followed one to a website which was interesting, but more interesting was one of those columns on the side.  It said that even bloggers are squeamish about the race issue.  So I decided to weigh in.

When I was teaching a class once at a well known university, my students were asked to stand in front of the class and tell us their story.  Why were they here?  How was it going?  That kind of thing.  The students always had amazing stories.  Near the end of the class one of the students raised his hand and volunteered.

He was an African-American and I only say that because he wanted to talk about his experience being African-American in a mostly white school.  He wanted to vent.

He proceeded to tell us how mistreated he was, how his classmates were lousy classmates, how none of them had taken the time to get to know him.  The class ended, but he kept going and no one moved.  Needless to say the other students were uncomfortable, looking at their feet, trying not to take it in.  But they heard him.  They felt him, probably for the first time.

Now I have no idea what the students were feeling.  Shame?  Guilt?  Compassion?

I found it inspiring what he did.  He obviously had been carrying it around for a while.  But no one ever asked him to tell his story before or he simply never did.

He finished and simply stood there.  He took a deep breath and looked down.  Some of the students turned to me looking for permission to leave.  I let the discomfort hang in there.  Finally, he looked at me.  Right in the eye.  Then all the students turned and looked at me.

“So what would you like us to know?  How would you like us to react to what you said?  What do we do now?”

I don’t think it occurred to him I would ask him that.  I think he thought I’d be mad.  So he stood there for moment and said “I’m not sure.”

I grew up playing basketball at a mostly white suburban high school where we had a couple of major racial incidents that turned very ugly.  I played on basketball teams in Alexandria and on playgrounds in D.C. where I was often the only white guy.  I got beat up, picked on, even had my life threatened with guns and knives.  In high school I tutored a first grader in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in D. C. at a school with few white students or teachers.

But here’s the thing.  For every guy who wanted to make things racial, there were ten guys who stood up for me, who cheered me on.  In a summer league game once in Alexandria I got a standing ovation after a dunk.  I was the only white guy in the gym.

So I told my students that I was adopted.  I told them I could not begin to imagine what he was going through.  But I did believe we had one thing in common.  An experience we all have in common I suspect.

I asked him if he felt like he didn’t count, like he didn’t matter.  He nodded.  We understood each other at least in that sense.  That is what my adoption made me feel.

“How many of you have felt like you didn’t count, like you didn’t matter?  How many of you felt like no one cared enough to listen?  How many of you wish one person truly cared how you feel?”

They all nodded while still looking at the floor.  The discomfort lifted.

“I don’t know what we can do about the racial issue.  What I know is we can make people count.  We can listen.  We can care how they feel.  And in doing that you will realize how much you matter.”

This was 20 years ago.  I think things have gotten worse.  I think fewer people listen and without that we cannot claim to care how other people feel.

I don’t know about the race thing.  What I have observed though is that when things get tough, people look for bad ways to feel like they count.  They put other people down.  They undermine others in some misguided attempt to count more than someone else as if that makes us count for something.  You either count or you don’t.  There are no degrees of counting.

I’ve lost pretty much everything I own and barely get by these days.  I’ve had people tell me I don’t count if I can’t pay my bills.  I’ve had people imply I don’t count if I don’t have a job.  But everyday I listen to someone about them, about their lives, about how they feel.  I ask people to tell me their stories.  It seems to me these days that doesn’t count for much if you measure yourself by money or social status or if you even have a job.

I am here to tell you none of those things money can buy matter in a world that seems so lost.  What I can tell you is I know when I listen to people, when I ask them to tell me their story, then for two hours or so, they know they count.  Then I know I count.

Not many people have gotten to do the things in their life that I’ve been blessed with the chance to do.  In medicine, business, sports, music, etc., I’ve asked people at the top of those fields to tell me their stories.  I’ve been invited onto the stages, into the corner offices, onto the playing fields, and into the minds of some of the best in the world.  I just haven’t found a way to make money at it.

What I learned, what was shared with me, was the story of the people who do great things or things at a very high level. I got to know the people.  One best selling author even said to me “You’re better than my therapist.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve made people feel small, like they don’t count.  That happens when I am at my worst, when I’m tired or worn out or upset, when I feel like I don’t count.

But what I know is that what makes me my best is when I listen to someone, when they tell me their story.  When they walk away knowing I cared how they felt.

I was once asked to give a talk at a camp for kids with diabetes.  These were teenagers and as I walked up to the hut where I’d be speaking, the oldest boy stopped me and asked me if I was the speaker.  I said I was.

“Do you have diabetes?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Do you know anything about diabetes?”  I shook my head no.

“Then why should we listen to you?” he asked.

“I don’t know actually.  But I’ll make a deal with you.  Give me five minutes and if you don’t like what I’m saying, we’ll go play on the zip line.”

“Deal,” he replied.

They let me talk to them for two hours.  At the end of the session, I asked him why he let me go on.  What did they get from the talk?

“You gave us permission to be like everyone else.  You gave us permission to dream the way everyone else does.”  I didn’t understand.

He told me that their dream had too often been defined by their disease, by over protective parents, by labels of diabetics.  Their dream as given to them by others was simply to successfully manage their diabetes.  He told me that I showed them that everyone had obstacles on the path to living their dreams and that was all the diabetes was– an obstacle.

“Now I understand that if I take care of myself, if I do what I need to do to take care of my diabetes, then I can dream a real dream, do the things I want to do.”

He pulled out a piece of paper and he had written out the process I use with people.  He’d filled it out correctly showing me the preparation he had to do like checking his blood sugar, exercising, and eating well.  Under obstacle he simply wrote “my disease.”  What he understood was he could make the obstacle smaller through his preparation.  He could dream.

Under Dream he’d written–“To find and live my dream.”  He told me word for word that I made him feel like he “counted.”  He carried that piece of paper in his wallet for years.

I have no idea how to solve the race issue or even how to have a conversation about it.  What I know is where to start.  You start by helping people feel like they count.  It’s in all of us to do that.  It is what’s best about all of us– not what we know, but listening to what we don’t know, what we cannot possibly know about another person.  We can never know exactly what someone else feels.  It is the most personal sense we have.  But we can listen.

I don’t care how much money you have, what title you have, what awards you’ve won.  I guarantee you I personally know someone who has more money, has more important titles and won more championships and awards.  If you make people feel like they don’t count none of that matters.  If you don’t care how people feel, then you don’t matter.

We are at our best when we care how other people feel.  We need a lot more of that right now.  We need it now more than ever in my lifetime.

Do you feel like you count, like you matter?  If you doubt that you matter, then ask someone else to tell you their story, to tell you how they feel…and then just listen.

You will discover how much you matter…and how little the other stuff counts.


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