Tag: "compassion"

Ten Keys to Get Through a Difficult Time: Notes from Newtown

Ten Keys to Get Through a Difficult Time: Notes from Newtown

This article appeared in the Newtown Bee on December 4, 2013:

Have you ever been on a laughing jag? Once you get started, every little thing, no matter how inappropriate or stupid, is just hilarious. Once the hilarious emotion takes over, you perceive everything as funny and this keeps the laughter going. The same is true with any emotion. Each emotion is like its own colored lens. Whatever you see through that lens fuels that emotion. If you’re laughing, everything looks funny. If you are mad at someone, in your mind, everything they say is proof of how evil they are. If you are afraid, everything you perceive is more reason to feel afraid. If you are in love, everything that you see reminds you of your beloved. It’s the nature of emotions. They color how we think. There is neuroscience behind this. The emotional centers of the mid-brain act as neural filters of cognition deciding for us what we will think and the tone of how we experience our lives.

Rose colored glassesOnce a strong emotion dies down, it lets go of the cortical/thinking part of our brain and we can think again more freely and see the world more objectively. We might see that what we were laughing at was really stupid, that we were mad at someone for something they actually didn’t say, think or do, that we were afraid for no reason. In this way, our emotions are like music added to the score of our life. They add wonderful flavor and tone to our experience, but they can also hijack our thinking and cause us to misperceive the world for what it is. The same event in our life might be experienced completely differently with different music/emotion added to it.

Brain And here’s the problem; humans are neurologically wired for two opposite things: preservation and community. Our instincts for self-preservation are hard-wired into our brain stem, the reptilian brain. Chief among these instincts is our “fight-or-flight” response that causes us to become filled with anger to fight a threat or filled with fear to run from a threat. Thankfully, this much-needed preservation instinct does not require any thinking at all. It simply kicks in full-blown and automatically when we experience a threat.

The problem is that we also respond to many social situations as threats in the same way we might to an attacking lion or bear. The same anger or fear that protects us from physical threats can also destroy our social relationships. For instance, humans instinctually respond to uncertainty as a threat. We respond to overwhelming feelings as a threat. We respond to information that contradicts our world-view as a threat. Exhaustion also can launch our reptilian brain into instinctual threat responses.

Chased by LionsSo, all manner of social situations can kick in the same fight-or-flight survival responses of extreme anger or fear that being chased by a lion can. Left unchecked, these survival emotions of fear and anger grow and become entrenched to become the background of our entire lives, tragically limiting our ability to have a fulfilling life with others and causing needless conflict. Times like these in Newtown when fear and anger have been stirred by the tragedy require us to be extra vigilant about this and choose a better way.

It Takes Practice

Comfort comes in many forms.Unlike these survival instincts that are present in full force from birth, our instincts for community require training and reinforcement. The ability to quiet our angry and fearful survival instincts when we are with others requires the practice of a number of higher order cortical skills. The whole path of civilization across time is a record of how a culture helps its own quiet these “reptilian” brain instincts in favor of more socially refined cortical behaviors that must be practiced and learned. The key cortical function needed to quiet these instincts is our ability to choose. We can choose to work on quieting our instinctual responses of fear and anger that are geared toward our personal survival in favor of emotions and ways of viewing the world that bind us closer. Every culture, philosophy and religion in the world across the ages has guidance on how to do this.

images-1As we approach the anniversary, these instinctual reptilian responses of fear and anger will be showing themselves. It’s only natural and to be expected. Being tired emotionally, physically and mentally from a long and uncertain year will only make this more likely. There is a very inspiring group of 11–14-year-olds in town called the PeaceBuilders. One of their mottoes is “Don’t be a lizard!” By this, they mean that to be able to change the world, they have to be able to change themselves. That means they have to be able to control their instinctual reptilian brain responses of fear and anger and choose instead cortical compassion and kindness and a path toward cooperation when everything inside them is screaming to feel hurt, to blame, to withdraw or to retaliate. The road to resilience in our lives is about quieting these instinctual responses and practicing ways of being that may not feel natural or easy at first. But, with practice, become a part of our character.

Here are some of these resilience-building practices that are a part of ancient wisdom and now being proven by modern neuroscience. The first set have to do with stopping risky behaviors that keep us in our survival mode and destroy our ability to bond with others in a healthy way. The second set has to do with adding strengths that protect us from our own reptilian self and increase happiness through stronger and deeper connections to others. In the days and months ahead, these key resilient strengths will go a long way to creating stability and happiness in our lives.

gas-on-the-fire1. Don’t Throw Gas on the Fire. That is, if you are engaged in an angry or fearful spiral with someone, stop. Don’t speak words or act in ways that make things worse by fueling more anger and fear. This is not how you “really think.” It’s only how you think when you’re angry or afraid. You’ll think differently when you are free from your reptilian survival emotions and can feel more human emotions like love and kindness again.

2. Don’t Kid Yourself About Alcohol, Drugs, Violent Behavior and Sex. These may feel like a break from the pain, but they carry all manner of destruction with them. You know this. Get help.

blame-game3. Avoid Blame and Accusation Like the Plague. These are the surest signs that our reptilian brain is controlling us. These will absolutely guarantee that the bonds that can give us strength and wisdom will be broken. They are poison. Find another way to state your needs. Get professional help to do so, if you need it.

polar-bear-on-ice-flow4. Watch the Isolated Drifting. Notice when you are spacey and preoccupied. Emotional confusion and exhaustion can show up as isolation. Watch for it and see it as a call to make a choice, as in the next item.

5. Invitation to Intimacy. See your struggle not as something that destines you to be isolated, but as an opportunity to create greater intimacy with those in your life. The person you are with probably feels a version of the same thing you do. Use that to bind you together, not break you apart.

6.) Make No Major Decision About Your Life When You Are Angry, Afraid or Depressed. You owe it to yourself and all you’ve built up to make important decisions when you are at your cortical best and not your reptilian worst. The same is true for judging others. See them for their best and not what they are when they break at their weakest.

I-need-you-I-miss-you-I-love-you-3-love-10112773-1024-7687. “I need you now.” Instead of drifting in isolation and the fear and anger that come with it, try something new and say this to the people closest to you. Everyone is feeling isolated, tired, confused and a little overwhelmed. We’re all human. Let’s unite around that fact instead of it being a source of alienation. Be quick to apologize and quicker to forgive.

8. Take Care of the Home Front. Your kids need to see an example of suffering successfully. They need to see that amidst confusion and hurt and not knowing all the answers, relationships can be a source of strength and comfort. You can be confused and hurt together.

9. “Nurture yourself.” We need to take the time to strengthen the higher cortical parts of our brain to calm down the reptilian brain and its fear and anger responses. We do this through prayer, meditation, rest, a loving circle of friends, the experience of beauty in nature and art, sports and exercise, laughter. Without taking time for these pleasures, the reptilian brain is too strong to calm down.

gratitude-110. Gratitude is the Attitude. There are countless wonderful examples of the best in human nature emerging all around us in personal transformations and community service since 12/14/12. Find something to appreciate in others, tell them about it, and these very strengths will grow in you. You can only see strengths in others that are present in some form in you.

These basic practices make possible an enormous variety of healthy and creative ways to be together that are simply not possible when we allow our reptilian survival instincts to govern our lives. No one is perfect at all of these. But, like riding a bicycle, we get better with practice. In the year ahead, as we help each other with these resilient strengths, new and cooperative forms of problem solving as a community can begin to take hold. This is necessarily a steady and organic process. We are off to a good start. No doubt, we will find added peace, strength and capacity in ourselves and each other in our united efforts to support the practice of these resilient skills. Our happier resilient lives and the improved community we will have built together will then gradually grow to be a living testimony to honor those who have been taken from us.
5305336124_289c02f2ca

For the Anniversary: Launching a Year of Service

For the Anniversary: Launching a Year of Service

This piece was in the Newtown Bee, November 14, 2013 in anticipation of the one year anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
Newtown

“The anniversary is approaching. Discussions have been going on across town about how best to approach the day. Taking the wishes of the families into account who have asked to not have a commemorative event that would repeat the media circus they lived through last year, there won’t be a townwide event on 12/14/13.

Instead of a single commemorative event that comes and goes, a much more carefully thought through vision and mission has been endorsed by families, our first selectman, the superintendent of schools, the Interfaith Council and civic leaders throughout our town. That is to set in motion a positive resilient momentum that will serve us for years to come. We are naming it A Year of Service. We have chosen kindness and compassion as the lessons we want to derive from the tragedy. Now we are manifesting that kindness in action in the form of a commitment to service to one another throughout the coming year and hopefully for many more years to come.

When we speak about resilience, we are talking about taking the power away from things that lead to bad outcomes and giving power to things that create growth.

On the one hand, a steady stream of beautiful, inspiring and unifying examples of kindness in action are occurring from an increasing number of individuals along with well established and newly minted organizations around Newtown. A town that has already been rich in the spirit of service to others has become much more so since 12/14/12. The “We Are Sandy Hook / We Choose Love” signs are still up. These many acts of kindness have begun to give form to that vision and mission. Over the past year, the number of people has mushroomed who want a more cooperative, compassionate and unifying style to take hold in town and who are taking action to make it so. Our innovations along this path have not only raised hopes here, but have already been an inspiration to communities across the country.

“On the other hand, we have all heard friends describe feeling physically exhausted, mentally spent and emotionally overtaxed. Perhaps it has been a desire to recapture a sense of control over all that was unleashed and what rendered us so powerless that ultimately resulted in an increase in bitterness and anger in conversations and in local social media. That helpless place in us can spawn a creeping suspicion that sours into negativity and leads to wrongly judging the motives of others and assigning unwarranted blame to those who don’t deserve it. But that’s not who we are.

We committed ourselves to not allow this terrible event and subsequent fear, anger and bitterness to define us. We committed ourselves to let compassion and kindness rule our lives. For such a commitment to kindness to mean anything, it has to take form in action. Kindness in action is service. It is a powerful force for personal rejuvenation and growth. Service to others provides a vision worth working toward. It mobilizes the best in us. It energizes our motivation. Service to others breaks the isolation and disempowerment that are the corrosive factors in dysfunctional grief. Service brings out the best in us and transforms our grief into commitment to the best in others. Ultimately, to be healthy, grief must become a commitment to be of help to others.

Click here to see the many organizations that have taken up this spirit of service in Newtown.

Click here to see the many organizations that have taken up this spirit of service in Newtown.

In that light, instead of a single commemorative event, 12/14/13 will be the first day of A Year of Service in town in which we all dedicate ourselves to transforming our sorrow, fear and anger into a commitment to a better way. As Lincoln said to another generation, “that we here highly resolve that these honored dead will not have died in vain.”

Let December 14, 2013, mark the first day of A Year of Service in which each of us commits to still the fearful and angry currents in our hearts. Let this Year of Service be a time when we practice more mature cooperative and respectful ways of speaking and problem solving. Let this Year of Service be a time to practice new habits that put the welfare of others before our own. A year will allow new personal and social habits to develop and for a new and elevated norm to emerge and solidify in the town culture that benefits us all. Obviously, the practice should extend beyond the year. But, this initial time frame shows our resolve to see our way through to a better way.

1386810470000-AP-CONNECTICUT-SCHOOL-SHOOTING-VIGIL-53299283How and where does it start? Start intimately, close to home and closer to the heart. Help those closest to you. A child can help a sibling with homework. Help a neighbor when convention says to turn away. Small acts or large, one time or long term, the point is to get started and keep going. We said we wanted to be known as the town that produced resilient role models and better citizens of the world as a result of the horror that visited us. This Year of Service will provide a context for that vision to take shape.

No one event or series of activities will be the balm we all seek. But, a web of people committed to bringing out the best in each other through repeated acts of service can set a new and elevated tone for the town. The legacy we leave for those who have left us will be our own lives richly lived in service to each other on their behalf.”

Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

(This piece was in the Newtown Bee in the spring after the horrific shooting in Newtown.  The piece itself begins after the video below.  The piece and the video were part of a combined effort to help develop a community based resilient response in Newtown after the tragedy.  With the articles and videos setting the stage, the workshops mentioned in the piece were carried out in people’s homes and designed to embed these resilient skills into the community.

The video for this post: Compassion or Conflict, Take Your Pick: How does the overwhelming nature of grief affect the way we talk to others and problem solve in destructive ways in the community? Then, a call for the kind of skills we’ll be learning in the workshops with an inspiring example of transformation from this kind of work done in Bosnia.
http://youtu.be/1q4uNBrt5dM)

The bottom line is, it’s about how we honor the love.  First, the love of those we have lost, then, the love for those who remain.  Lincoln at Gettysburg said,

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.’  Just as we cannot compensate for the lives of those who are gone to those who lost them.  The loss is too great.  Our work now is different.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work… to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion…—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

644694_480753318658865_899854966_n It is equally true in our private lives and in the nation.  We grow when we are able to derive greater strength from the adversity we face.  To suffer successfully is to get the wisdom from it.   Suffering expands us, or contracts us.  Growth is not a guarantee.  It is a choice.  We can suffer unsuccessfully.   With crises the nation can rise to a new horizon of its promise, or it can sink into rancor and division.  We choose.  How we come to view each other as a result of our suffering is the key.

The anguish from such horrible loss as we have experienced since 12-14 grips us all with a sense of powerlessness over the workings of fate.  This powerlessness activates our most primitive survival responses of fear and anger.  Unless we treat this sense of powerlessness wisely, this fear and anger can dominate our thinking, feeling and behaving and undermine our character.   Their corrosive affects disrupt our relationships and corrupt our civil discourse.  These emotions have the power to set us against each other needlessly causing us to see enemies where there are potential allies.  These base emotions limit our options and make our world smaller when our diversity, if activated by a compassionate united vision, could unleash undreamed of human potential.

There is a choice to be made when these frightened and angry feelings well up.   When our sense of powerlessness grips us we can choose to see it as the very shared experience that unites us all as human beings.  Suffering and powerlessness should lead us to recognize our common humanity.   They are shared experiences not only between us and our spouses and loved ones, but also in our town and beyond to the country and all of humanity.  This recognition of our powerlessness is the beginning of compassion if we keep it free from the contamination of fear and anger and instead, blend it with our bottom line, with love.  This is what suffering successfully is about.

IMG_6670 If we don’t make this choice, our grief is distorted into anger and blame, to fear and despair.  Alienation then breaks the bonds of relationships.  The promise of a deeper intimacy and the hope of the possibility for a deeper nurturance from others and greater commitment to their welfare is lost.

If we loose site of the opportunity for growth in compassion and unity that suffering presents to us, we tragically focus instead on the futile attempt to have power over the uncontrollable.  We fight over symbols of control.  Our lack of control over money, policy, the opinions of others can fuel this sense of powerlessness and lead us into these understandable, but ultimately destructive patterns of angry social discourse.  This is the unnecessary, avoidable human-caused tragedy that is layered over the initial tragic loss over which we had no power.

As we move more deeply into the exhaustion of our response to 12-14, we will need to be vigilant to see the natural tendencies of fear and anger as they rise up in us as a result of our powerlessness over life.  The despair and blame they create are corrosive to us, our relationships and to the fabric of our community.  These very responses have poisoned the national dialogue and paralyzed our ability to govern ourselves.

307681_4602101649190_1206300442_n There is another way.  We can choose compassion when everything in us screams anguish and despair and anger.  For our own health, the health of our children, our relationships and community, we have no other choice.  This is the unique position we find ourselves in as citizens of Newtown.  Through our struggle to find a compassionate way, we can spark a new kind of dialogue here and in the wider circle of the country.

To do this, we must first take control of our own suffering: to choose compassion when we are triggered to anger.  To choose to see friends where our tendency is to see enemies.  To give the benefit of the doubt to others who are also struggling, sometimes failing or making human mistakes.  Then, we must choose a new way of speaking to each other.  We need to learn mature  21st Century methods of problem solving together that are respectful, cooperative and creative and abandon 19th Century partisan extremes.  As a result, we will benefit in our personal lives, our families, and our community and possibly set an example for others to follow in the nation we all love.

The Unity Project has called for a new type of dialogue in the community.  As a result,  launched a series of helpful videos on resilience, Newtown Bee articles and home-based workshops to develop the resilient skills needed to move forward this phase of our growth together.  These workshops will then help participants learn the skills needed to have a new type of 21st Century conversation that nurtures our common growth.   The launch of this initiative will begin on April 11 at 7:00 p.m. with a public talk on Building Resilience by Dr. John Woodall at the Middle School auditorium.  Please come and bring friends and loved ones to begin to take up the great task before us.

Related videos on resilience:

Video 1: The Basics of Resilience: This is just what it says in the title.

Video 2: Your Kids Need You This Year: This kind of suffering affects our relationships and parenting. Some basic awareness and skills can turn this trauma into an opportunity for greater intimacy.

Video 3: Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II Expanding on the previous video, this one talks about turning specific negative qualities into strengths for your kids.

Video 5: From Newtown to a New America: creating a culture of peace: We find ourselves in this unusual position of being the focus of the attention of the nation. People want change. They want something better in the way we speak to each other as Americans. There is an opportunity in the horror we have experienced to raise the level of discourse in the country. This video introduces that idea.

 

The views expressed in these videos do not constitute endorsements by either Suzy DeYoung or John Woodall, MD of Sandy Hook Promise.
 

"Everyday Heroes" by John Woodall, MD on PBS

“Everyday Heroes” by John Woodall, MD on PBS

Here’s an interview aired on PBS station WSRE in Pensacola, Florida, on a show called, “Conversations with Jeff Weeks.”

It offers some of the key features of the resilience principles used in my workshops and in the Unity Project.

Enjoy!

Fantastic Coffee and My Shocking Experience with Islam.

Fantastic Coffee and My Shocking Experience with Islam.

Opatija, Croatia.

This morning, I was treated to a good cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts.   Good coffee always reminds me of my friend.  We called him “Effendi.” He and I used to drink endless cups of amazingly good coffee together, the best I have ever had, when I lived in Opatija, Croatia.

It makes sense.  Due to its location at the northern end of the Adriatic, at one time or another, Opatija (pronouced o-pot-i-ya) has been ruled by Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.  Blend these with the local Slavic influence and you’ve got way more than your typical cup of joe.

While I lived there, it was less than an hour drive to Trieste, Italy (most of that going through 2 border crossings)  and right around two hours to Venice.  The architecture in Opatija shows the blend of these great cultures.  So does the food, and especially the fantastic coffee.  I have never had a macchiato (here’s a recipe) anything  like those I had in Opatija.

The Balkans is one of the world’s great melting pots of culture. Slavic culture’s western-most reach ends here in Serbia.  Austro-Hungarian culture dips into Croatia.  Ottoman influence is still alive in Bosnia.

Over the centuries, the human exchange between these three major cultures has led to both a flourishing social climate, and on occasion, tragically explosive and lethal politics.

Click on the map a few times to see Opatija is under the “j” in Rijeka on the right.

For the year I lived there, I ran a refugee relief program funded by USAID.  The war in the Balkans had just ended after the worst part of the Rigid Identities of the politicians of the area played up fear and extremism between these rich cultures instead of building on the amazing strengths they offer each other.  If you’re old enough, you surely remember the genocidal results that followed in the horrific war that raged in the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s near the heart of central Europe.

My main work was to develop trauma response programs to help Croatians who had been forced from their homes to find a way back home.  I had the even more difficult task of helping the far larger number of Bosnians return to their homes across the border.  (Here’s a map of the region.)

Work for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, pictured here at the Hague, and USAID led to my doing this refugee work.

These were people forced from their homes at gun-point.  Women, children and men alike were all raped and brutalized, the men often killed  in the process to try to break the spirits of the population so that they would never want to return.  These cruel methods went along with a brutal military offensive to drive Bosnian Muslims and Croatians from their homes so that ethnic Serbs could claim land they felt was theirs.  The result was a horrific genocide.

In our meetings, Effendi and I would drink endless cups of coffee together.  It only dawned on me months after I arrived that the reason I never seemed to get any sleep was because business in the region is conducted over  coffee.  When I went to someone’s office, coffee was served, many cups.  Or, as is the custom, we would meet in cafes to do business and drink more.  By the end of the typical day, I would have had 12-15 cups of coffee.  I usually can’t sleep after 2.

So, Effendi, who was the recognized leader of the Bosnian Muslim refugee community, and I would meet often to try to figure out how to help the tens of thousands of people forced from their homes  to return to Bosnia.  We usually met over coffee and chivapchichi (here’s the recipe).

“Chivap” or chivapchichi is the Balkan version of hamburger.

I loved this man, but the endless, (and delicious) coffee and “chivap” were killing me.

Effendi and I puzzled over how to send people back to homes they had been forced from at gun-point.  One day, while we met at the refugee community center, a ramshackle building the refugees rented, I put the question to Effendi.  “How do we send people home without rekindling conflict all over again?  Some will want to seek revenge.  How do we prevent the people in the houses from getting violent?  What can we do to make a difference?”

“Are you free Saturday morning?”  Effendi asked.

“Yes.”

“Then, come here at 7:00 for the children’s class.  I want to show you something.”

A few days later, I arrived bright and early with Neli, my translator, to see what Effendi had in store for me.  We climbed the stairs of the old building to the large public room that held about 200 kids.  They were all threadbare having lost everything in the war, but immaculate and well pressed.  They were sitting on the floor in neat rows facing Effendi who was already well into that week’s lesson to help prepare the children to return to their homes in Bosnia.

I was greeted with great respect and formality by the kids.  Neli and I took our places.  Effendi continued,

“Children, what is the first obligation of a Muslim when we return to our homes in Bosnia?”

In unison 200 strong, the children replied, “The first obligation of a Muslim, when we return to our homes in Bosnia, is to forgive the people living in our houses.”

“Children, what is the second obligation of a Muslim when we return to our homes in Bosnia?”

“The second obligation of a Muslim, when we return to our homes in Bosnia, is to ask the people living in our houses if we can help them.”

Shocked, and knowing full well what these kids had been through, I asked Neli to confirm what we had just heard.  “Yes, that’s what he said.”

So, it was possible to return to Bosnia without violence.  Effendi knew it could work.  It wouldn’t be accomplished by a top-down administrative plan.  This was the way.  It would be done by many people making a very personal choice.

In fact, there has been no violence to speak of in Bosnia since the war ended.

Here is an example of the best of Islam and the power it can exert for peace. We need to reinforce these examples in a time of religious extremism of every sort. We are all prey to the worst in human nature. The best in every religion is capable of protecting us from the worst in us.

I think of Effendi, those kids and my choices every time I think I am entitled to be angry or hurt.   Or, when I have a good cup of coffee.

Related Posts:

The Compassionate Identity: The Prize and the Price.

Post-Partisan America: First Things First: The Choice We Make”

“Lessons from 9/11 for Tucson”

“A Compassionate Identity:  “What Sue Remembers”

Please share this with your friends on Facebook or your own blog.  I’d love to hear your comments below.

All Rights Reserved, John Woodall, MD, copyright, 2011.

Compassion and What Sue Remembers

Compassion and What Sue Remembers

Click here if you missed the last post on Post-Partisan America.

I knew I wanted to meet Sue Dunne after I met her son, CJ.

His Dad and I had an interview scheduled in his office on a Saturday morning in mid-town Manhattan.  Jimmy Dunne’s story is quite moving and inspiring.  He has gotten a lot of attention for his handling of the reconstruction and phenomenal growth of Sandler O’Neill & Partners after 9/11 and the firm’s loss of 66 people that day in the South Tower.   I told a small part of Jimmy’s story in a previous post.  But, it was meeting CJ that showed me that this was a family story.

Our coffee cups were pretty close to this big.

Sue and I met in the Dunne’s lovely home on the East River in Manhattan.  She greeted me at the door with an enormous cup of coffee in her hands.  A few seconds later, I had one in mine, too.   (She offered me some coconut milk to go with it.  Ordinarily, I would have said “no.”  But, I thought, “What the heck,” and accepted.  It was delicious.  Try it if you get a chance.  You’ll like it.)

The conversation naturally flowed while we settled into the living room.  We turned the exchange to CJ and his Dad and the reason for my coming to see her.   “Like his Dad, CJ has a lot of presence, especially for a 16 year old.   There was something else that was there, too.   He has an ease with adults that is refreshing and a sense of deep confidence.  I liked him.  He showed a genuine interest in the life of his Dad and a sense of grit and heart and desire for excellence that was striking for his age.  He’s still young, but these are great signs for the future.”

I finished plugging in and turning on my computer to record our conversation as I continued,

“These are the same qualities I saw in his Dad, but with a different flavor.  So, I figured the difference had to come from his Mom.   I know that most stories of success are really family stories.  So, seeing CJ and interviewing Jimmy, I knew I needed to speak to you to get a better picture of Jimmy and that time around 9/11.”

We jumped right into the deep end of our conversation talking about the days immediately after 9/11, when Jimmy, now the only surviving Principal of the three that directed the firm at Sandler O’Neill, had to come up with a way to support the families of those killed that day and, in parallel to this, rescue the firm from collapse.

Entire departments of the firm were depopulated.  All of the records of their business dealings were gone.  They had to reconstruct who their clients were and the contacts developed by now deceased colleagues, establish what the contractual arrangements were, rebuild their information technology support, find qualified replacements for those lost and a host of other crises, while also tending to the human calamity they faced and the unspeakable loss to the families of their loved ones.

Bereft families had to tend to immediate issues about insurance, house payments, what to do about kids in college and a thousand family issues couples struggle with together.  Many families turned to Jimmy to help them figure these matters out.  All the while, the steady cadence of memorial services and funerals continued for months along with the utterly exhausting shock of it all.

Sandler O’Neill decided to extend payment of salaries to the families of the deceased.  A foundation was established to provide for the families’ health insurance and kids’ educations.

Sandler was the first firm on Wall Street to do this.  The conventional wisdom at the time and the best advice of experts was that firms should not do this for the families.  That it would undermine the capitalization of the firms, thereby weakening their business positions and their reputations for financial stability in the market.  Jimmy, with absolutely no guarantee of success, did it anyway.  Sandler O’Neill and Jimmy Dunne became the role models for the rest of Wall Street and earned the well-deserved esteem they wear today.

“I was trying to support my husband any way I could.”  Sue began with a raw tenderness for old and dear friends who had passed away, some friends whom Jimmy had known since his teens.  “Jimmy needed me.  I needed to go out to our friends.  My days were spent going to funerals.”

“It was a Wall of Black!  9/11 was just black.  It was just the darkest of the dark.”  Sue said of that time.

In that blackness, Sue described a surprising respite.  It was what she felt while at the memorial services and funerals.

“The feeling was so peaceful.  Going to those funerals with people feeling the same way.  We were able to share their lives.  You got to hear about their lives from people who really loved them.  You never wanted to leave.  It was safe in there.  You heard so many wonderful things about people you loved very much.”

We talked about the challenges of raising kids through all of this.  I recalled my experience in the Balkans during and after the war there.   When given the chance, kids would want to draw a picture over and over of their experience of what happened.  Of course, this is the effort of a child with limited language skills to try to understand what they had experienced.  The issue becomes one of helping the child find words to not only describe what happened, but to have a way to give meaning to the loss in a way that frees up their motivation to build their future in a positive way and not paralyze them with fear or rage.

“I spent the first 3 months going to funerals.  I wanted to get out there and let them know we were there for them.  Trying to do what we could…  We needed to get out and support them as much as we could.”

I thought, this was a real sign of who this woman is.  She didn’t have to “get out and support them,”  but she “needed to.”  This is the heart of a leader, the heart of a caring friend.

“I was delighted I could go.  It was a privilege.  It was hard for me to stop.   I loved being there supporting the families.”

I asked Sue about any lessons she picked up from those days.  Was there a way to summarize what she learned for CJ or another teenager?  What would she say?

“It sounds so simple, like such a cliche, but it’s important to live your life to the fullest all the time.  Be there.  Show up!”

“You don’t want to be in the position where you say to yourself  ‘I really should have showed up more for this person.’  Or, sit there and blame others.  Or, sit there and blame Muslims.  It’s about helping other people.  Getting going with your life.”

This is the mystery and the beauty that’s so often found after such a terrible event.  Sue found a great comfort learning about and appreciating the humanity of those who were lost. These memorials were a straight path to the pure uncovered love that people felt for those lost.  Being present for this kind of sharing exposed the link that connects us all, a link that is often hidden by the turmoil of our day. In a time of crisis, some people help us see that link by their care, their presence. Sue showed up not only for Jimmy and her kids, but very personally for scores of families.  Sue remembers the love.

The next post explores getting clear on the Prize and the Price to, like Sue, make a choice from our Compassionate Identity.

Related Posts:

A wonderful story from the Balkans:  “Compassion, Fantastic Coffee and My Shock

Sue’s husband, Jimmy, is talked about in this post:  “Resilience and Leadership: Jimmy Dunne.”

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