Jerry Happy Birthday

I turned 48 this week. My friends and family helped me feel loved. My 14-year old son Michael, for example, tweeted “Happy Birthday father o’mine.” And a new dear friend sent me a photo from the Tibetan Plateau:

She wrote it just days after helping a few dozen boys, students at a monastic school in Tagong, move into a new home and school–a building that a few of us came together to purchase on behalf of the monastery.

I first met the monks in Tagong in September of last year when a few of us drove for four days on fairly tricky roads to bring supplies from Chengdu into Yushu where an earthquake had destroyed so many homes. Depending on the roads, Tagong is a day or two drive from Chengdu. (See this post: How I Spent My Summer Vacation)

When I first encountered the boys, I could barely contain my desire to help. That September, though, we had another mission–to get to Yushu.

Later, last January, I came back…to Yushu, to Chengdu, and to Tagong. I wrote a post at the time asking, quoting Tracy Chapman, if you knew you would die today, saw the face of God today, would you change? I vowed to help move the boys from a shelter that was little more than tree branches and plastic sheeting into something safe and warm.

Months of discussion, planning, more discussion, lots of tea (sweet and butter), lots more discussion (this is, after all, Tibet), and just about a week ago, the boys moved into their new home–a recently renovated, three story traditional Tibetan-style building. They are warm and safe and the snows have just begun.

My new dear friend wrote to a few of us:

We just returned from a trip to Tagong to help students and teachers move to the new school. Everything went smoothly and every one was very happy about the new school…on the 9th we had breakfast at 9:00 am, and then went to the old school to help the students move. Students, teachers, and helpers from the town had already started moving…the school also had five tractors to help haul large items like furniture and firewood.

Everyone was happy to work and help with the move. Everything but firewood was moved before lunch. For lunch we had a very simple and delicious meal prepared by the students in their new kitchen. After lunch the students drew numbers for their new beds, then they made their beds and put all their things away. The helpers from town, the TVP [Tibetan Village Project] team and the teachers started moving and stacking firewood. We spent the whole afternoon on this task; it was tiring work but we are happy that students have a stockpile of firewood for the winter. We worked until 5:00pm but there was still some firewood left to move.

On the 10th we had breakfast at 9:30am and then went to the school to visit the students and teachers. It had snowed overnight, so the students were busy outside clearing the snow, in addition to stacking the rest of the firewood…on the morning of the 11th [we] visited the school’s greenhouse. We were excited to see that the vegetables in the greenhouse were growing very well…the students were still busy cleaning the new school, and they expressed happiness and satisfaction with the new school. When we asked for their opinion of the new school, they told us that the new school is warmer and bigger than the old one, and that the new school has a big yard outside where they can play, eat, and enjoy sunshine. They also said that they want to study very hard and be beneficial to people in the future.

A few weeks ago, during that last trip to Tibet, I traveled with some old dear friends. They rightly asked if, given the enormity of the poverty in the region and the systemic changes that will need to be made to create enduring prosperity, for people to move from trying, as they do now, to live on 12 cents a day to be lifted into the magical realm of living on more than a dollar a day (and thereby no longer be classified as “ultra-poor” but merely poor), did it make sense to invest in one school, one village, one building.

As I lay on my bed that night at the lovely Heavenly Jewells [sic] Hotel (by far the nicest hotel in Tagong), I came across this passage from The Gift by Lewis Hyde:

The begging bowl of the Buddha, Thomas Merton has said, “represents the ultimate theological root of the belief, not just in the right to beg, but in the openness to the gifts of all beings as an expression of the interdependence of all beings…The whole idea of compassion, which is central to Mahayana Buddhism, is based on an awareness of the interdependence of all living beings…thus when the monk begs from the layman and receives a gift from the laymen, it is not as selfish person getting something from somebody else. He is simply opening himself to this interdependence.”

I knew then that I would make the gift that would catalyze the purchase and enable the boys to be warm before the snows came.

A few days before their move into the new building, I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I’d been invited to come during my last trip, a trip I wrote about in the post Born Somewhere Else.

Over the course of five days I did six talks. My talks ranged from the pragmatic to the esoteric; from How to Lead and How to Raise Capital to How to Survive the Startup Life. The latter talk, essentially a distillation of the workshop Ann Mehl and I developed around my post, Disappearing into the Fire, seemed to be especially poignant for people.

The night before that talk I woke from a hazy jet-lag troubled sleep and, sitting in my room at the Union Hotel, I changed the presentation, adding some pictures from my trips to Tagong.

I was nervous when the talk began because I had shifted things and didn’t know how the 150 or so folks in the audience would respond. I had nothing to fear; from their tears I knew I had touched their hearts.

My intent was to use the photos to talk about the work being done in Tagong. I shared that work as an example of a way in which I try to embody my one-third, one-third, one-third life balance rule. One third for the inner you; one third for the outer you; and one third for the Other–those who embody our interdependence, those to whom, out of the depths of our compassion, we save not only them but, in the process, ourselves.

In my mind the Indigo Girls are singing She’s Saving Me. And the last lines–She’s saving me I don’t really think she knows it/It’s a strange way to show it as distant as last night’s dream unravels/She’s saving me I’m a very lost soul/I was born with a hole in my heart as wide as my land-locked travels–repeat as if the needle is stuck in the groove.

Earlier this week I saw my Buddhist teacher, the one who gave me the gift of “the one-third rule.” He asked me about my trip to Slovenia. With just the slightest hint of pride in his student, he said, “Ah, I see. You are giving them, the Others, the strategies you’ve used to save yourself.”

The gift of giving to the Other is the most powerful salve for closing that hole in your heart, the one that’s as wide as your land-locked travels. Placing alms in the bowl (be it a building in Tagong or a strategy to survive the every day violence of work) feeds not only the begging monk before us but the begging monk within.

Jerry Happy Birthday.

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  • kirklove

    Happy Birthday, Jerry.

    Thank you for all you do. I’ve read you only for a short time and have learned much. Mostly about myself. Very grateful for that and to you.

    All the best.

    • jerrycolonna

      Sags Rock!

  • kirklove

    PS: My 42nd was on December 13th. Go Sag! 😉

  • Ela Madej

    Happy birthday Jerry!

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Ela

    • Rohan

      Really like the new photo, Ela! :) 

      • Ela Madej

        Thanks Rohan! By 😉

        • Rohan

          Wow. That’s distinguished company!

          • Ela Madej

            yes, I was lucky enough to have attended  the conf earlier this year. Kevin took shots of almost everyone there. There might actually be an exhibition in NYC… 

          • Rohan


  • Ailian Gan

    I love that statement about opening yourself to interdependence. How do we balance interdependence with unattachment? Is there some kind of ideal tension, or perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. 
    Happy birthday, Jerry! Thank you for a beautiful post. 

    • jerrycolonna

      What a great, great question. I don’t know. That said, what occurs to me is something I often feel is the key to non-attachment. It’s a crude test but it seems to work for me…I check to see if I would feel “devastated” by the loss of the thing that I’m holding to. That is, if my sense of self, my sense of self-esteem, would suffer if the situation were to shift. If so, chances are pretty good I’m attached to an outcome.

      Being aware of, and in synch, with the interdependence of all things–and the co-dependent arising of all phenomenon–is powerful and helpful. But one could easily turn that “medicine” into a poison…

      I suspect you’re onto something profoundly important when you note that perhaps they are two sides of the same coin.

      Thanks for such a thoughtful and provocative comment.

      BTW, took at a peek at your most recent post on Tumblr. Wonderful piece.

      • John

        I’m not sure why we feel that attachment is such a bad thing.  I sense that the problem is that society is becoming less and less worthy of trust and so that’s why we fear attachment.  However, I find that my best relationships…or interdependence if you will…are those where I have a deep attachment and no fear of harm from that attachment.

        Of course, I understand the realities of the attachment, but to me I just prepare for the risk that something happens and I get hurt in some way instead of trying to not become attached.  However, I can’t live my life in fear that some attachment will cause me to be “devastated.”

      • Ailian Gan

        That’s a great litmus test. As I apply that test to various parts of my life, it’s quite clear to me that I am attached to things. But as John points out, I’m not sure I can live without attachments, and I’m not sure I want to. I suspect I’m not quite getting the nuances of what unattachment means… It is certainly not the same as not caring.

        Since posing the original question and reading the terrific replies here, I think if interdependence and unattachment are two sides of the same coin, then I think “the coin” is vulnerability. Interdependence and unattachment are two ways we can learn to accept our vulnerabilities and relate to them in a healthy way. 

        Hmm… so much to reflect on. Thanks so much for the kind words for my post! 

      • Joaquín R. Kierce


        attachment to things versus attachments to outcome.
        I think we’re flying around the issue of CONTROL, non-attachment being “free of fear of outcome and therefore not in need of control” and awareness of interdependence being “what control???”.

        • panterosa,

          what control

    • Kevin Friedman

      Hi Ailian,
      What a great question… how to “balance interdependence with unattachment”? This is something I’ve definitely had to learn (and am still learning) about in multiple contexts: marriage, family, start-up life, etc. I think for me it’s somewhat of a paradox: the more I develop my sense, awareness, and even love of “self”, the more I’m actually freed to depend on and love others. When we have little sense of or connection with ourselves, we can quickly become lost. That’s perhaps why Jerry’s one-third rule is such a great guide. Your question also reminds of the concept of having “boundaries” in relationships. Perhaps, that might be helpful.

      • Ailian Gan

        I think you have hit on something really interesting – and true – by introducing this notion of developing your love of self as a starting point. And being “freed to depend” – that phrase should not make sense except it does. The more comfortable we get at establishing good boundaries, the more open we can be to interdependence… 

        Thanks for all the food for thought, Kevin! 

  • Rohan

    This such a wonderful heartfelt post, Jerry. 

    In the spirit of not taking us seriously, I thought I’d share a 2 minute birthday song (if you haven’t heard it already) –

    Hopefully it’ll make you laugh! 😀

    PS: Jerry Happy Birthday!

    • jerrycolonna

      :-) Thanks Rohan for making me laugh out loud

      • Rohan

        I’m glad! Hope you’re having a great day. 😉

        And my god. I really was in a hurry as I typed my original comment. Glaring typos.. haha

  • Kevin Friedman

    Jerry, thank you for this honest and heartfelt reminder about the”gift of giving to the Other”… especially apropos this time of year. Funny, I happened to recently look up the origin of the expression “for whom the bell tolls” and it reminded me of this post. While the phrase was popularized by Hemingway, it’s originally from a meditation by John Dunne that speaks to the interconnectedness of man:

    he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls
    for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as
    that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to
    toll for me, and I know not that….No man
    is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a
    part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the
    less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy
    friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I
    am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the
    bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

    • Kevin Friedman

      Oh… and Happy Birthday!!! :-)

      • jerrycolonna

        Thanks Kevin. And thanks for the Donne reminder

  • Tereza

    Congratulations on that work coming to fruition. That’s a really big deal for those boys, and for others to have a sense of what it possible.

    Happy birthday, Jerry. And have a very Jerry Christmas as well.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Tereza. Now the real work begins…the work of building the school.

  • Abhay Vardhan

    Belated Happy Birthday!

    You guys are doing great work.

  • JD

    Happy birthday

  • Charlie Crystle

    The school’s real and will contribute, but I wonder if the school is a metaphor for something for you…

    • jerrycolonna

      Of course. I have a hole in my chest “that’s as wide as your land-locked travels” like most everyone. I’m not immune from using altruism to save myself. I just hope that, on the whole, it does more good than not. Just which little boy do you think I’m saving?

      • Charlie Crystle

        :) I’m sure it will do more good. 

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