Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Humility of Community

Last week I had the chance to be back in Manhattan for full day meeting/pitch with a large PE firm.  Over the past few months, I have found my self meeting with a number of PE firms in NY, their offices all being just a few blocks from each other in midtown.  Surprising clustered; I have found myself a great little hotel that I have made my new NY home, “The Lexington” at 48th and Lexington.  Nothing fancy for sure, but a great location, decent rooms, a nice bar and a good deli across the street.  Not a bad combo!

As is my habit, I typically get up early (regardless of time zone and location) and either hit the gym or hit the streets for an early walk and to grab a coffee.  When staying at “The Lex,” I have got into the habit of starting my day with a walk a few blocks south on Lexington ave. and straight into Grand Central Station.  There is an amazing energy to be in Grand Central at 6:30 or so on a weekday when the commuting trains start coming into the city.  The energy is electric and intoxicating!  I have discovered a great little coffee place called “Joe” in the hallway not far from the Lexington ave. entrance (try their Cortado, it rocks!) that has become a required stop.

Well with coffee in hand last Tuesday morning, I found my way into the “Main Concourse” and was once again blown away by the scene.  The weather was beautiful, a crisp bright fall morning, with great light literally “pouring” into the station.  I worked my way through the growing crowd, the buzz and energy building, and found my way up a set of stairs so I could take in the scene. (the picture above is from that spot.) 

Taking it all in, the coming of the commuter trains and the growing crowds, with each individual busily heading off into their day, I was struck by the idea for the title of this essay.  I felt privileged and also humbled to be part of the mass of commuters, the “community” of Grand Central Station on that recent Tuesday morning.  It struck me that while I had been busy and focused on the presentation ahead of me that day, a huge lesson for the me was happening right there in the train station. After a few minutes of “drinking deep” from the hustle/bustle of the scene, I found my bay back onto Lexington ave., fresh coffee in hand, and made my way back to the hotel deeply energized by a most amazing “morning walk.”

  This idea of feeling proud and appreciative of being part of a group of people, a “community”, bigger than us is a bit rare these days.  With headlines filled with a shooter at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado, or terror attacks in Beirut, Bangladesh, Paris, or Mali, we seem surrounded by the darkest sides of our “community.”  We as the “community of humanity” are not and should not be defined solely by our darkest deeds or tendencies.  Indeed, WE are capable of terrible things, clearly highlighted in our history over the past centuries and the most recent weeks.  Equally WE are capable of wonderful things, great moments of beauty, of selflessness, of love and charity, great moments of caring/sharing for others that often don't find their way into the headlines of the moment.  This truth, the reality of our capabilities for great “good” and great “evil” spans cultures, nations, faiths and traditions.  It IS a reality of our human history, well documented over the centuries and millennium. 

I am not debating or denying this historic dynamic.  My suggestion, inspired by a busy train station, is that the vast majority of our community are NOT trying to destroy innocent lives, are NOT trying to dominate their world view on their neighbors, are NOT trying to dominate or discriminate their fellow “community” members based on race, creed, sex or sexual orientation.  MY view, again freshly inspired by Grand Central Station, is that most of us ARE trying to find their way in the world, ARE trying to make tomorrow just a bit better than yesterday, ARE trying to make the future better for their families or their children. 

 Leaving the station last week, I was humbled and inspired by “our community” and proud and motivated to play a role.  Regardless of headlines, I am convinced in our potential for greater good than evil; certainly brought to life by our political and religious leaders across the globe, but also in the actions of morning commuters everywhere!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hope and Love; a response to the violence and terror in Paris

I know that I stand together with millions, no probably billions, across the world aghast, saddened and angered by the terror attacks in Paris on Friday night.  The senseless killing of innocents, whether at a café, a restaurant, a concert or a stadium, is impossible to understand or justify.    Pope Francis was quoted as saying that

“ I am close to the people of France, to the families of the victims, and I am praying for all of them. … I am moved and I am saddened.  I do not understand – these things are hard to understand. …  There is no religious or human justification for it.”

I find myself sharing many of the Pope’s feelings in the wake of Friday night.  Saddened, prayerful, and not understanding how this form of brutality has any place in any religion across humanity.  Again I quote Pope Francis; “There is no religious or human justification for it”!

In response to the attacks, borders have been closed, security measures increased, and military readiness heightened across the world.  It’s more than understandable.  In the light of Saturday morning, with the shock and sadness of the madness from the night before settling into our understanding, our hearts and minds are turned to thoughts of action, consequences and retribution.  I certainly felt those emotions this weekend, and I am confident many others did as well.  I thought that since “they did that to us, what are we going to do to them?”  I hungered for a strong and deliberate response, matching fire with fire!

It was in the midst of those thoughts this weekend that my mind turned back to that amazing speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that I so often go back to for inspiration.  I have often quoted in this blog and in many speeches and team meetings Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech from December of 1964.  Almost 51 years old, and yet freshly inspiring this morning!  In the context of amazing violence and hatred, he shared an amazing vision about the possibilities of humanity:

“ I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

It is hard not to be stuck in the “isness” of our “present nature”, matching hate with hate, violence with violence, and thinking that that somehow that age-old cycle will change on it’s own.  Equally it seems almost impossible this morning to reach up for the “eternal oughtness” that confronts us!  Dr. King was surrounded by hatred and violence and unthinking acts of terrorism and brutality across his landscape.  Just before he gave this speech in Oslo, the bombings occurred in the Birmingham churches, killing the young Sunday school students.  It was in this context that he gave this speech, extolling all of us to  “shake off the starless midnight of racism and war” and be focused on the possibilities of a “bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood.”
 Challenged and inspired by these words of Dr. King, I turn my mind to my memories of Paris.  I have had the chance to visit Paris, both for work and for pleasure, a number of times and I am entranced, and quite possibly in love with the city.  Ten years ago, I was there for a business trip and took some time to myself and had an amazing morning wandering the city.  I captured a few memories of that adventure in an essay on this blog (My Morning in Paris), here is an excerpt:

After an early wakeup, with my map and sunglasses as my only attachments, I headed out of Le Bristol, around the corner to the closest Metro station, Miromensil.  The Metro was busy with morning commuters but it was still early, only 7:30.  After changes at FDR and Concorde, I found myself at the Rue de Bac station, looking for Notre Dame of the Miraculous Medal.  Quite by accident I arrived just as the 8 o’clock mass had begun, celebrated by 6 priests, in French of course.  While my French is almost non-existent, the rhythm, the symbols and the beauty of the mass were very familiar to me and before I knew it I felt fully part of the service.  That beautiful church on a non-descript Wednesday morning was almost completely full.  People came and went, stopping in as part of their morning routine, or taking a few moments of prayer as part of their morning commute; certainly a step beyond my usual Atlanta rhythm.

After mass I wandered through the narrow streets into St. Germain de Pres and found a perfect table, overlooking the church, at Café Deux Margots.  “Un café’ e pan chocolat si vous plais!”  The sun was shining, the café bustling, my waiter, at first a bit stern, but once I ordered in French and ignored him appropriately behind my paper (very Parisian), he really seemed to warm up!  Sitting very close to my right was a very attractive, stylishly dressed woman of around 60, with great glasses and of course,       ” Le Monde.”  On my left was a young man, obviously very busy with his cell phone and café.  I was part of the stream of Deux Margot that morning, a sensation I will certainly enjoy again.  Though my next destination was Musee D’Orsay, I walked up to the Seine and spent some time on the bridge that crosses to the Louvre.  I stood in the middle of that bridge, watching the boats, the cars, the bicycles and the people and I kept singing to myself the song “I love Paris”.  After a few turned heads by passersby I realized that I wasn’t singing only in my head.  Oh well, its Paris!  On to D’Orsay.

It was a crowded morning at the museum and instead of strolling through the lower galleries; I went straight for the escalator that whisks you to the upper floor…the Impressionists.   Seeing Claude Monet’s water lilies in daylight, lit from above by natural light coming in through the glass ceiling of the old railroad station continues to be a delight even after a few visits.  This morning for some reason had a number of school groups of very young children with their teachers.  They would sit on the floor before these beautiful, famous paintings with their teachers describing the subject or the painter and the kids sketching away in their notebooks.  At one point in front of a Degas ballerina statue one little girl stood to show her friend that she could make the same pose as the dancer.  This 6 yr. old girl in a school jumper, replicating the exact pose, the posture, the smile of the sculpture was “art come to life”; a precious sight indeed.

My time was fleeing and though the clouds were forming, I wanted to see the Paris from Mont Matre.  Again back on the metro and on to Abesses.  With the fete de la Musique underway, the path from the station to Sacra Coeur was a collage of sounds.  There were fiddlers, an Irish Harp, a small jazz trio and a choral group from Missouri; all at various corners, all making music, and all making sense.  The Cathedral of the sacred heart (Sacra Coeur) was finished in 1914 and sits on a hill overlooking all of Paris with a view that rivals the Eiffel Tower.  Though the structure is awe inspiring, the inside, especially the blue mosaic in the dome above the altar, is breathtaking.  After a few moments of reflection I headed down the mount and back to the Metro station to head back to the hotel.  I hopped off the train at Madeline, a metro stop near Place Concorde, so I could find a quick bite for lunch before I hit Le Bristol.
After a few minutes I saw that I had made a wrong turn (no big deal, all turns that morning seemed pretty right) and wasn’t heading towards the hotel but in the opposite direction.  Maybe I really didn’t want to get on the conference call that was awaiting my return.  I found myself at rue Lavosier (a street named after a famous French scientist whose name sounds a lot like mine) and the Café Louis XVII.  I sat right on the street and unapologetically ordered a beer.  Immediately a Heineken was delivered and that may have been one of the most refreshing first sips in a long time.  I ordered the Salade Louis, mixed greens tossed in a light dressing with ham, gruyere, potatoes and tomatoes.   Light, delicious and very satisfying especially since I used every crumb of the small baguette served to enjoy the last drops of the oil and vinegar on the plate.  After paying the tab, “13 euro si vous plais,” I checked the map, cut down a side street and before I know it I was back at rue Faubourg and my hotel.

I share all this as a bit of a testimony to not just how much I loved this trip to Paris but how much I believe that life is to be lived!  Sure there will be sorrows, defeats and setbacks but there will also be triumphs, exaltations and great beauty.  Too often we live our lives at such a pace that we can’t remember one iota of the day we’ve just finished.  We are so focused on tomorrow that we forget that all we know we have in life is today…the now…


  Now in the light of a bright Atlanta morning, I am still saddened and angry about the attacks in Paris.  Senseless, hate-filled, acts of violence can never be encouraged, accepted or condoned!  But as I reflect on our world and that amazing city, I am working hard to be reminded of the images of the French schoolgirls at Musee D’Orsay, the beautiful blue ceiling of Sacra Coeur, and the delicious “Pain de Chocolat” at Café Deux Magot. 

These attacks should and will never be forgotten!  We all must share in the loss of the victims and the mourning of their families.  We all should join with the Pope with sadness and prayers.  Additionally, I am reminded and inspired by the joy, the beauty and the “light” of Paris; and am working hard to stay focused on the “oughtness” of “Hope and Love” for humanity when it is so easy to be consumed by the “isness” of the “violence and terror” of the moment!