Friday, March 5, 2010

Why We Are Here

Let’s think hard about this one. With all due respect to philosophers and theologians who have debated this question for centuries, is it really that tough to figure out?

Not when I have my friends with me – and I have brought a few along for this post: Billy Kilmer, Oprah Winfrey, and Emily Dickinson. I’ve also brought along my private inspiration who is always with me: my mother.

Billy Kilmer came to the Washington Redskins in the 1970s as a veteran (read: old) quarterback with a suspect arm. Fans had to wonder why a team that already had a great veteran (Sonny Jurgensen) and a wealth of young prospects needed someone like him. They wondered until he stepped in for Jurgensen during the Redskins first Super Bowl season. He didn’t throw that well, didn’t run that well, just didn’t look that good in general. He wasn’t a fun player to idolize. But he did one thing that made him a champion: he knew how to get his teammates to perform. He knew what they needed in the huddle, and he knew how to get the ball to the right individual. And when the old-timers from that 1972 team get together, they don’t talk about how great he was; they talk about the great things they accomplished together.

Enter Oprah Winfrey and her empire. I will admit that I don’t spend a lot of time watching her show or reading her magazine. Never have. But when I do pay attention to what she does, I am struck by one aspect of it: it’s all about us -- what makes us happy, what makes successful, what holds us back. Stars come and go; teachers, leaders, companions on the journey – they stick with us.

And then there’s that forlorn soul, Emily Dickinson, a strong, brave, but desperate voice, virtually unheard during her lifetime – my counterexample. She wrote great poetry, tapping into the big questions of life, death, and yes, meaning. But her peers and contemporaries had no idea; she was one of those poor souls appreciated only after her death.

I have had a few successes in my life. I have always felt that I earned my successes by working with others to make something bigger or better than what I could have created on my own. Where did that come from?

My Mom is a pretty humble person in terms of her resume. You might wonder why friends and family from all over the country make a point of calling her on a regular basis, just to check in. You might wonder why an 80-year-old who appeared to be mostly a “housewife” most of her life would inspire that much interest and loyalty. I don’t wonder for a minute, just as I am no longer surprised when my Mom (1000 miles and a time zone away) happens to call just at those critical times when something important is happening in my life.

It’s really pretty simple: people who spend any significant time with my Mom are better off. They’re happier, they’re healthier, and they feel better about themselves. She knows how to help people be their best, even when the things around us are at their worst. Most of us aren’t even aware of what’s going on unless we think about it afterwards. We just feel better.

So back to the question of why we are here: it may have taken me five decades to figure it out for myself, but I think I’ve got it now. Someday, Mom, I’m going to catch up to you.

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