The Circle of Life

“I’m from Germany,” she said with a smile.

“I was seventeen when I got married and I went to visit the United States shortly after that."

The complexion on her face suddenly changed and her smile disappeared. "When I returned home a year later my husband went off to the Korean War.”

There was a pause and she seemed to hesitate with the next few words.

“He never came back.”

“I was a widow at eighteen… so young…” Her voice drifted off into the distance and I could see in her eyes that she was reliving a life that seemed so distant and so far away.

Rosie was in her mid-70s but her beautiful blue eyes and lively attitude made her seem twenty years younger. She sat alone during her lunch break, quietly staring out the window watching people come and go from the store where she worked.

I had been using the cafe in the store as my makeshift office and after making eye contact and exchanging smiles several times, we began striking up random conversations.

Spontaneously sharing deep thoughts about life and the lessons it teaches us, our conversations seemed like an odd interaction between two strangers who were separated by nearly forty years of life experience.

A few days later I went to my sisters' house to hang out with my brother-in-law and my one-year-old nephew. When night fell, we started a campfire in the backyard and brought my nephew out to see it.

In the darkness his face glowed orange and he smiled so big that his tiny teeth shown through. As if witnessing a never ending stream of magic, he looked up at his dad and pointed at the fire in awe.

I've sat around perhaps hundreds of campfires in my lifetime, but my nephew was experiencing one for the first time.

Over the course of his life, how many campfires will he sit around? Since the dawn of mankind, how many times has this process repeated itself?

Listening to Rosie tell her wartime stories had made me realize how much had occurred before I was even born. Now I was looking at my nephew and realizing the exact same thing, only this time I was the older one.

It’s easy to forget that our entire bodily existence is an infinitesimal moment in time, a single raindrop in the sea of eternity. We subconsciously focus on our little slice because it's so much easier to digest. It solidifies the reality around us and makes us feel in control.

But it's important to remember that many others have come before us and that may others will come after us. This greater perspective allows us to see what's real. It allows us to be aware of the precious time we have left and appreciate the things that are really important.

No matter how difficult our situation or how many challenges we may face, there's no point in wasting time soaking ourselves in depression. We all struggle and experience loss, but it's our attitude that determines how we live, not our circumstances.

Watching my nephew stare at that fire, I remembered Rosie's attitude and the important thoughts she left with me.

As if sensing the empathy I felt towards her story, she said in an insistent tone "But life is good!"

“My father-in-law, who I’ve seen perhaps only twice since the war, reconnected with me a few weeks ago. We talked for hours. For so many years we didn’t know each other and now we have so much in common and so many stories to share.”

Her beautiful smile returned. “It’s the circle of life. Everything changes, turns, and loops back around again."

Beyond Imagination

I traveled 1,300 miles by foot, car, subway, and two airplanes to watch a spaceship blast off into space. Was it fun? Absolutely. But was my decision to spend time, money, and resources to watch a machine carry humans into space really just another small vote for poverty?

A child is painfully aware, if only subconsciously, that it knows very little. The young brain does not see the world and say, "I know everything; I don't need to learn that." It doesn't make assumptions. A young brain is infinitely curious. Always exploring, always learning, always expanding its horizons and converting the unknown into something that makes sense.

Scientists call this brain plasticity, our brains' ability to evolve, change, and grow based on the experiences and the environments we're exposed to. As we age, our brain becomes less plastic and begins to harden as we convince ourselves that we know. We know how language works. We know how people work. We know how the world works.

But when we expose our brain to something new -- a different set of people, an awkward social situation, a reality that was previously deemed science fiction -- our brain is forced to cope with this new truth. It's forced to grow. It's forced to return to its plasticity and expand. Continue reading

33 Moments of Introspection

Pine Trees in Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro State Forest

"What if I had a clone? What if my clone wasn't complete and he needed some kind of information that would help him better understand who it means to be me?"

It was an odd thought, but I went with it anyway. I was sitting in an office, peering into the darkness that enveloped the city of Boston. The shapes of buildings were outlined with tiny lights and red, green, and white colors flowed on the streets below.

"What would I tell a clone to help him better understand me?" I began jotting down specific points that came to mind and stopped when I reached thirty-three.

"Was this me? Did this list convey the essence of what it's like to live in my head?"

Over the course of the next few days, I went back to that list and spent time pondering each point. I jotted down stories, described examples, and otherwise tried to define what each thing meant to me.

Now I'm sharing that list here with you in the hopes that you will glean something useful from it. Continue reading

Revealing Reality by Considering the Context

A few hours after arriving in the United States, I tried recording a short video to capture the strange feelings and emotions that I was experiencing, but my thoughts felt too incomplete and scattered. Now that I've had two weeks to process everything, I feel like I can articulate what's going on a little better.

On my last day in India I was taking a taxi to the airport when I felt the driver suddenly tap the brakes. I looked out the front window to find a seven-foot bull strolling up the highway into oncoming traffic.

The cars were all traveling at high speeds but they barely slowed down and instead just swerved around the giant creature. It was as if they were simply avoiding a pothole. That's when I realized that I wasn't even surprised by what I had seen. Continue reading

Discovering the Real Nepal

Nepal FREED - Ainshelu Bhome Kahule 7 School Welcoming Raam

If I could take the past four months of traveling through third world countries and compact them into two days, it wouldn't even begin to explain how life-changing, eye-opening, and humbling the past few days have been for me.

I'm still digesting everything so I hope you'll forgive me for not going into too much detail, but it should be enough to say that I gave my first, second, and third public speech, entirely unprepared, in front of almost one hundred children and adults, after climbing up through the clouds to the highest elevation I've ever ascended on foot.

I was welcomed and treated like a king.

And what had I done to deserve all this? Nothing.

I had to keep reminding myself that although I hadn't done anything to deserve such a grand welcoming, my ability to reach the world through my writing gave me a potential that none of them had; I had to constantly remind myself that my life contains such an abundance of opportunity that I needed to find some way to give it back to them. Continue reading