So there I was. It was 3:50 a.m., and I was in the middle of an impassioned speech about a life philosophy and credo for my new company. The audience was engaged. The room was brightly lit. It was a college classroom on the first floor of an old building. I was looking uphill at a street above the tops of the windows. The audience was sitting in rows of desks. There were maybe 15-20 in attendance. People were spaced out comfortably with the room about half full. My listeners ranged in age from 17 to 55. There were men and women, beginners to executives, well-dressed and prepared to learn. They were looking at me like I might be crazy, as I began my presentation with something they hadn’t heard before. I could see it was dark outside, with occasional car headlights passing by, and I pondered the odd time, but only for a second. I could feel the audience intently listening, questioning everything I said, but hoping for the best. I could tell I was on a thin line between brilliance and cuckooland, but at this particular moment, I had them. They were on the edge of their seats waiting to see where I could take them. They wanted to be inspired. I had visions of motivational speaker Eric Thomas in my head as I walked the floor serpentining between rows of desks from the front to the back of the room, left to right, row by row. For whatever reason, I had taken the first few slides of my presentation and fallen into a zone. This was still my introduction, but it became more. Tonight there was something I had to get out, and it was something they had to hear.
“Open hearts, closed hands.” The words seemed as new to me as they did to the room, but I continued, “This is what I live for, and what I strive to inspire in others.” Why? What does it mean? What does it portray? Closed hands conjuring visions of fists seemed too negative for this message. I was feeling a little nervous now. How is this empowering? My audience seemed to be conveying a single message, “Convince us this is something that will change our outlook on life.” And so, I kept going.
First of all, my heart is open to God, so don’t be alarmed when I say our hands should not be open to the sky as we might have been taught. My god is a single creator of the universe, but not necessarily a religious icon at the head of any particular religion. My heart is open to the god that lives as a pervasive spirit apparent in all things. That god, who created all things, inspired all religions, sparked all life, created the wonders of the Earth and the heavens, stares back at us through the eyes of our peers. My god lives and works and watches and inspires me through the open arms of my mother and the calloused hands of my father. My god looks longingly at us through the wondrous eyes of our newborn children, and speaks gently through the shaky voices of our loved ones as they leave this place. My god continues to inspire me daily, minute by minute. My god speaks back to me most often in my own voice. I hear that voice placing answers to my internal questions even before I have finished asking them. My god once met me on equal ground, on a cold, frightening night when my son was struggling for his life. In that moment, my god asserted simultaneous omnipotence and compassion. It was there God told me, with absolute confidence and no equivocation that we too, are godlike, and we are not doing our part. We are not doing enough.
We are made in God’s image as powerful beings, yet we look for solutions outside of ourselves. We accept fate and trust in faith alone. We can be more. We give up too easy. We are too content. We are too comfortable in our lives. We don’t seek to expand our knowledge or influence. Although our technology is increasing rapidly, our personal and spiritual evolution are slowing down. We stay busy, but we accomplish little within ourselves. We might talk to God, but we forget to listen. We pray, but we don’t meditate. We trust the words of our pastors and preachers, but we don’t read the thousands of religious works available to us. We simply don’t do enough. Our hands are open, when they should be closed. Our hands should be closed around a book, or a spoon at a soup kitchen, or the hand of someone in their twilight who no longer recognizes our name or face. If we want to find God, it isn’t enough to pray or attend church. We have to close our hands around a boat oar, a rake at a park, or the hand of a child offering up a silly gift. We have to close our hands around the steering wheel on the way to forgive and visit an estranged family member or friend. While there is nothing wrong with kneeling down in prayer and opening our eyes and arms to the heavens, it isn’t until we engage our hands in real activity and effort that we start to accomplish things.
At this point I paused and surveyed the room. Many were nodding along and engaged, some looked somber from introspect, and I was about to make it worse. I told the audience about a sad story that refuses to leave my mind even after many years. A normal family, with professional parents who worked in health care taking care of others. A couple who discussed and decided to murder their children and each other after a series of marginally bad decisions. A family similar to a lot of other families today, facing a temporary low, being broke, unemployed, and feeling hopeless. In the suicide note they left a universal cry for help, “O Lord, my God! is there no help for the widow’s son?” It was too late. The story haunts me, because I want to believe if I heard a similar cry for help, or if any one of us heard it, we would acknowledge them rather than ignore. We would intervene, and we would do something to save that family. Right? Would we? Would we step out of our comfort zone if it meant some personal risk or discomfort to our own families? I want to believe we would. I want to believe I would. I want to believe, but I can’t be certain. I don’t know how much risk I am comfortable taking to help a stranger. My story has lowered the mood, and I’m not sure why I shared it, but I know the story of a family 10 years ago and 3000 miles away still hurts my heart deeply to this day. It hurts my heart, but it reminds me that my heart is open, and I need to engage my hands.
When I think of an open heart, I try to think of it in a practical sense of being emotionally available. I think of it as opening up to joy and heartache and embracing them equally. I think of my wonderful wife who empathizes with people on such a level that she doesn’t just acknowledge their pain and struggle, but she feels it as if it is her own. By doing so, she often physically makes it her own and suffers with them. While most of us would choose to turn a blind eye or rationalize away any feelings connecting us to stranger, she embraces them. For her, it doesn’t matter if it is her own child, a homeless person on a corner, or a widower eating alone in a diner. If they are hurting, she is hurting. There is a connection she feels on a deep level, and she cannot help but to smile, say something nice, offer a hug, share a dinner, or maybe even share a tear. Many times she will still be talking about a connection for several days afterwards no matter how brief. For her, a glancing smile or frown carries as much weight as a formal introduction, and she never avoids either. It strikes me, that if things affect her in this way, while she is living a busy, full, comfortable life, surrounded by loving people, if it has affected her in this profound way, surely it has affected the other person in an equally profound way. Maybe this is Newton’s 3rd law of equal and opposite forces, and maybe whatever emotional burden she can take upon herself is a little bit less on that other person. She has intentionally given something of herself and made a positive impression on someone else’s world. I’ve heard people who survived suicide attempts say if just one person had acknowledged them, it might have changed things. We’ve probably all heard the story of a little girl saving starfish washed up on a beach. Thousands and thousands of starfish, and she runs along frantically throwing a few back into the water while onlookers tell her she can’t possibly save them all. She can’t save them all, so how does saving a few matter? Her answer as she throws one at a time back into the water is that it matters to that one. And that one. And that one. Her heart is wide open, and her hands are busy.
I stop to look at the room, and I see they get it. I know they want to help, and I know we all want the best possible things for those close to us and for the world at large. We want peace and prosperity in this life as well as spiritual understanding for what lies beyond. Those basic needs have been written in poems, songs, novels, and parables, still we find ourselves too often divided. It feels like every influence in our lives is targeting our differences and driving us apart. While I don’t believe in any evil influence, if there was one at work, it would be this. It would be division. It would be apathy. It would be comfort and fear. We fail when we get comfortable enough to stop growing and fearful of losing what we have attained. Comfort and fear divide us and close our hearts instead of our hands. We sit behind our security and open our hands to pray for better times for all those on the outside, when we should open our hearts and close our hands around the keys that unlock the divide.
I decide it is time to move on with the real reason this group came to hear me speak, so I transition back to my PowerPoint slides. What is this philosophy, “Open Heart, Closed Hands?” It is a philosophy of feeling and doing. It is a philosophy that we must be good stewards for our shared world. It is a philosophy that each and every person has a connection to God no matter how they describe that god. Each and every person has a connection to our shared environment, and most importantly we have a shared connection to one another. It is there all the time, and we chose in each moment to block or embrace it. This philosophy empowers us, and teaches it is not enough to acknowledge a connection, or have faith that most people are good, or that things will normally turn out for the best. We can do more. We must do more. God expects us to do more. This philosophy requires effort on our part to make good things happen. It is a vision of hands clasped in warm introduction. It is a vision of a full embrace between friends, new or old. It is a vision of hands busy in manual labor or volunteer work. It is a hand on the back of a child whom we are coaching, or a hand pointing at a screen for a room full of wide-eyed mentees. It is the vision of hands wrapped around a book on a porch swing or hammock. It is a vision of a hand wrapped around a fishing pole in God’s great outdoors. It is a vision of hands clasped not only in prayer, but also neatly folded in meditation where we wait and listen for God to answer our prayers. As we move forward today, the takeaway needs to be that actions change the world, not thoughts or prayers, but actions. Feel and Do. Acknowledge and Act. Take ownership of our outcomes. Get involved in uniting people. Evolve intentionally. Evolve with a purpose. Muhammed Ali once said, “Don’t count the days, make the days count.”
And then I woke up. The room was dark. I was confused for a moment, but I raised my head and found the clock: 3:50 a.m. I hashed over what I had just learned. I suppose it was a dream. I pondered where it came from. I pondered the day’s events, my own thoughts, and I tried to rationalize going back to sleep. Images of open hearts and closed hands kept rearranging themselves in my mind, and I wondered if this was a message I could communicate effectively in real life. I looked at the clock again; 4:00 a.m. As my mind cleared up I recalled the classroom from the dream. It was a familiar computer class in the Love building at FSU from many years before. I remembered the emotional story of that family who died. I remembered that fateful night where I met God and lobbied for the well-being of my son, but I could not think of anything remotely related to the philosophy portrayed by me in the speech. I could not think of anything related to the imagery on the slides in my presentation. Then I remembered a prayer. I remembered asking for guidance as I embark on a new career journey, and I remembered hoping and praying I would make the right decisions for myself and my family. I remember praying maybe my skills could be utilized to have a more positive influence in life. I remembered questioning myself earlier in the day wondering why I want to do this risky new thing. I remembered talking to my brother about how finding our true passion and coming up with pertinent topics is the hardest part of writing and speaking.
I looked at the clock: 4:04 a.m. I snuck quietly out of bed, prayed a simple, “Thank you,” and I sat down to type… “So there I was. It was 3:50 a.m…”