In my search for a dude with big, strong hands and some anger to work out in the form of a back massage, I found instead a slight man with a sunny disposition, an inspiring story, and the lure of patience to which my angel wings easily relinquished their anxieties.

I had a two-hour massage this evening by a man we’ll call Shaun. At 30 years old and not more than 120 lbs. in stature, his first impressions on me were hardly foreshadowing of his impact. Shaun came to the US nine years ago from Harbin, China, the nation’s ice festival city, established in the aide of the Russian’s building the Trans-Siberian Railway. Once here, he realized that he didn’t know enough English to successfully attend college, so he decided to study English and took a job in a Chinese restaurant as a delivery driver until he could more successfully take classes.

Shaun worked 11 hour days, six days a week at the restaurant, and had very little time to study English, so he decided to orchestrate yet another life change that would enable him to work fewer hours and learn more English. Today, he’s a massage therapist (and a damn good one, at that!), who works seven hours a day, five days a week, and whose English is very good!

Shaun and I shared ideas, thoughts, and questions. He didn’t really understand what communism is when I asked him what it was like to grow up in a communist nation. Further, he said that one of the big differences between the Chinese and Americans is that the Americans always want to travel to see the world and nature, where the Chinese are unconcerned generally with travel and nature experiences. He said plainly, “We don’t have fate. After the war, in 1949, the government told us to believe in science only, so we do not have fate or religious conflicts.” He said with warmth, “America is the greatest nation in the world. Everyone comes here to be better people, so there is no option but to succeed when you come here, even if it is hard to learn the language and culture. Even when it feels very lonely.” I also learned that in the US, we look forward in time. In China, they look backward in time. We have fate and a sense of what might be to imagine. The Chinese have science, and thousands of years of what has been to celebrate.

Shaun said casually at one point that if the US government survives to 1,000 years, it might work more like China. Our nation is so young, that enough time has not yet passed for people to forget their anger and learn to live in harmony. He suggested that America is the future, the hope of humanity, and the pioneer of the world of tomorrow. The hard times of today, too, shall pass he assured me.

While my back muscles gave way to his not-so-angry maneuvering, I felt restored in my confidence that neighbors and friends hold space for peace in our world. Tonight, where America and China met, shared stories, asked questions, and learned a little bit more about the other – we demonstrated that world peace is more than possible. It’s forthcoming, and lives in us.


Those people

I support genocide.

That’s essentially what she said. In her view, “those people” ought to be dead, all of them. Those Muslims don’t deserve to live after what they did to us on 9/11. She didn’t whisper, stutter, or mince her words. In fact, she delivered her verdict with pride and confidence. And she did it in church.

One of my favorite things to do is to visit friends and family, to do life with the people I love. This weekend, I visited friends in the Deep South, and part of what one does in the South is attends church services on Sunday mornings. I wouldn’t miss it for the world, to worship our Lord with dear friends he brought into my life over 20 years ago.

This weekend’s Sunday school lesson was drawn from the story of the Good Samaritan out of the Book of Luke, chapter 10. In the parable, Jesus is questioned by an expert of the law as to what one must do to inherit eternal life, to which Jesus replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” In the story, the expert replies to Jesus’ two great commandments, “And who is my neighbor?”

Our Sunday school class began with the same question. Who is your neighbor? How have you loved your neighbor lately? Have you misjudged your neighbor?  My friend offered a personal story, germane to the conversation, during the group discussion, recalling how she once had wrongly estimated the intentions of a group of young people who looked like thugs, and who ended up helping her out of a precarious situation in a part of town generally considered unsafe. There was silence in response to her reflective self-conviction and thoughtful suggestion that what one perceives about the world may not, in fact, be reality. No one contributed an additional, related thought to my friend’s perfect tribute to the power of our common humanity.

I did, however, learn that when someone litters on a beautiful country road, that it might be fruitful to scour the rubbish for receipts or other clues as to who might have littered. One woman said she took receipts she found on the road and confronted her neighbor, who denied dropping the trash on the road. In the end, she just wanted her neighbor’s help in keeping the roads beautiful, but some people simply can’t be relied on to share in that type of neighborliness.

Although I ached to participate in the meandering conversation, I resisted because I suspected that whatever I had to say might have the potential to detonate the room. To use a term I learned in church, I “prayerfully considered” whether I should open my mouth or not, and I made a deal with God that I would obey if he gave the words springs and loaded them up high in my throat. When the opportunity came to offer a closing thought, those spring-loaded words leapt forward like a big, wild cat pouncing on its dinner.

My comments must have plucked hard at a chord in the woman sitting in the pew just ahead of mine. I said that I believed people needed not to attempt changing the world, but to look into the mirror instead. I suggested that compassion and love for others—especially those who are least like ourselves and most difficult to love—flow from devoting oneself to living a life of self-examination and diligent learning. I told a story about a man who recently told me our airplane was delayed because of “a Muslim problem.” I declared my disgust for the man’s comments, and indirectly suggested that judgment flows from ignorance. We ought not to approach the world with the objective of changing the world, but we should instead look inward if we are to change anything at all. That’s all I said.

The woman sitting in front of me launched into explaining how she was in New York on 9/11 and has refused to fly since then. She emphatically declared that she couldn’t stand “all those people,” and that they should die for what they did to us. Additionally, she had no intention of learning more about them. She just wanted them gone. I curtsied to her anger, “You’re lucky, then, because all the people who did that to us did die.” She had the last word, “Not enough of them.”

The room fell silent and following an about-to-burst pregnant pause, the woman who led the lesson broke the silence. “Let’s pray.”

Yes, let’s pray, and let’s not forget to pray for our genocide-supporting Christian neighbors, as well as those whom they wish to exterminate.

Forgive them, Lord, for they do not know what they are doing.

# # #

I think the South is a beautiful place with a rich and hospitable culture; I very much enjoy visiting. I also know that there are fractures in its history that endure to the present that leave some love on the table. My friends do not share the views of the woman in the church. I am certain that I learned more than anyone else in church on Sunday. Absolutely certain.

Journey to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London

In May, I wrote a very short story about my behind-the-scenes experience in the development an It Gets Better video and the people who made it possible. The message was simple: Leadership is not about causing people to do what they otherwise might not choose without influence, but about drawing out the intrinsic value that lives inside and the personal conviction that flows from it. That story, supported by the many votes of friends and colleagues, landed me an opportunity to attend the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Robert Frost reminds us that where there are tears in the writer, there will be tears in the reader. And, where the writer is in London, so too will the reader be.

I look forward to bringing the London Games and the Paralympic Movement home to you. Join me on the journey as I report out to you from inside the 2012 Paralympics in London.

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Many thanks to my friend, Ken, for his creative genius, heart, and extraordinary ability to turn ideas and inspiration into art that brings neighbors a little closer.

Watch the It Gets Better video that features the individuals who inspired me to write my winning story: