Greetings- I hope 2024 is off to a good start. For Christmas I got some new, beautiful titanium pieces for my neck. I also traded in some that weren’t playing nice with my “born-with” parts. It’s like a strange necklace you can’t see. Recovery is intentionally slow the first couple of months, but we’re getting there. I turned 74 last Saturday and had a lovely lunch with our daughter’s family. I don’t “feel” 74—not that I would necessarily know—but I can tell you 60 is definitely in the rearview mirror.
Before and after the Dec. 15 surgery. The little hashmarks on the left of my neck in the photo on the right are staples.
Birthday lunch with daughter Brittany, Sofia (almost 3) and Wyatt (13). Not pictured, Hilary, Ryan and Hunter (11)
Hilary and I are long-time fans of New York Times journalist David Brooks. Perhaps best known for his coverage of politics and D.C., we particularly enjoy his explorations of life in general, and the trials and tribulations that accompany the human condition. Hilary was cleaning out some desk drawers the other day and came upon such an article by Brooks from 2015, The Moral Bucket List.
Here is a link to the New York Times article Opinion | The Moral Bucket List – The New York Times (nytimes.com). The essay also appears in his book, The Road to Character Amazon.com: The Road to Character (Audible Audio Edition): David Brooks, Arthur Morey, David Brooks, Random House Audio: Audible Books & Originals
The entire essay is worthy, but the part that particularly resonated with me is the section towards the end “The Conscience Leap.” It speaks to us: the stumblers.
These are some of the phrases that jumped up on me:
“In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols…They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.”
Suffering the tragedy and trauma of the transition of someone we deeply love, or a long-life debilitating illness, or the loss of a job we loved, did the stripping for us and obliterated the floor and foundation of our “normal” lives, dropping us into the abyss of the unknown and fears we could not have possibly imagined before.
We are forever changed. We are broken. Even though most of the pieces have been put back together, we’re not the same-not like we were “before.” And some of the pieces are gone, or they went with our loved ones. We may look the same to friends and colleagues— they hope and treat us like nothing happened, or nothing we couldn’t get over—but we’re not the same and we never “get over it.” We see things differently. Our priorities have changed or been reshuffled.
And as Brooks observes, this can be a good thing.
Those who have been stripped and thrown overboard can transform their lives into “a pattern of defeat, recognition, and redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering [and] turn those moments into occasions of radical self -understanding…Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.”
In fact, we have a lot more than just “moments” of pain and suffering. It’s not something we wear for a while and then toss in the recycle bin. “All better now.” It’s like my titanium necklace. You can’t see it, but it’s there. Always. But we adjust to it, we learn to live with it and, more importantly, we learn from it.
We’re thrown onto a new road, and as Brooks says, “The people on this road see…suffering as a piece of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.
“The people on the road to inner light stop asking what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me?
“This is a philosophy for stumblers…Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice.
“External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s a joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s a joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action…when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.
“The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquility… and at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.
“Those are the people we want to be.”
In 2013 I co-founded a support group for fathers who have suffered the transition of a child. We call ourselves the Fraternity and we have about 25 brothers-stumblers. When Brooks wrote the article in 2015, I don’t believe he had experienced pain like that, but nonetheless his words resonated deeply with me and stirred these reflections about our Fraternity and the members of my Tribe of about 150 stumblers (parents and siblings) who have survived the transition of someone they deeply love.
There is a particular joy and gratification being with fellow stumblers; having those deep conversations you can’t really have with anyone else.
There is a particular joy and fulfillment speaking with “strangers,” sharing our big stumbles and what we’ve learned, and thereby opening the door and giving them permission to share theirs.
I’ve witnessed the newfound joy and gratification many of us have received helping more recent stumblers confront their pain and grief, whether it be working one on one, or leading or participating in small support groups (like our Fraternity of dads), or mega groups like Soaring Spirits International and Helping Parents Heal with over 25,000 “stumblers.”
I’ve witnessed the joy and gratification of helping financially, mobility or mentally challenged kids and adults learn how to swim, surf, skateboard, bike and participate in other physical activities. And by bringing music therapy to thousands of children and ex-military suffering life-threatening disease or mental traumas.
And I’m just scratching the surface here of the multitude of morally good actions performed by the stumblers in our Fraternity and Tribe.
There is a common thread—as thick as a rope, really—that runs through all of this. We suffered a withering blow-some of us multiple blows. We stumbled and many fell, hard. We received help and reached out for help. We were changed, some more radically than others! Many of us saw and experienced things we never imagined possible. We began to see things differently and do things differently.
At some point in time—it’s different for each of us—we got up and took a hard look at our new selves.
And we began to help others—our fellow stumblers—in whatever way we could and that felt right to us.
There will be an endless migration of new stumblers, and our work will never be “done.”
I’m exceptionally proud of my fellow stumblers.
They are the people I want to be.
And be with.
With gratitude, respect and best wishes for continued healing and good work.