After hours of careful listening, my therapist offered an image that helped me eventually reclaim my life. “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,” he said. “Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?” Parker J. Palmer Let Your Life Speak
I met Parker Palmer long before he met me. It was March 2002. I was on a plane to Arizona and I had in my carry-on some things I’d meant to read for a while. Among them were two pieces given to me by my sister Ann: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and a magazine article. Ani Pema’s book became my gateway drug into Buddhism–but that’s another story.
The article was an excerpt from the book, Let Your Life Speak by Parker. I knew others had written openly about their struggle with depression, with difficult challenges of the heart but Parker’s grace, simplicity, elegance, and care, spoke to me. His words released something from deep within me. I wept.
Several weeks before I’d stepped out of a meeting in lower Manhattan and stood just shy of the still-smoldering wreckage that was Ground Zero and wanted to die.
It hadn’t been my first encounter with suicide. As I often add when sharing this story, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” But thankfully I called my therapist instead. And thankfully instead of giving in to my wish to be put in a hospital, she suggested I get myself to Canyon Ranch for good food and daily massages.
A little later I was weeping in seat 7D, wondering who was this man who spoke so fiercely, with love and heart, and with no trace of maudlin self-indulgence? Ten years later–my life radically, lovingly different—I found myself on a call with Parker, laughing and knowing and laughing some more.
Parker and I came together through my teammates at Cojourneo, Kevin Friedman and Dan Putt. Parker and our good friends at the Center for Courage and Renewal have crafted a workshop built around the principles underlying his Healing the Heart of Democracy. The partnership strengthened and blossomed as this year began.
Then, just weeks after Aaron Swartz, Jody Sherman killed himself. As with so many in this industry, Jody and I had crossed paths a number of times. The first was 17 or 18 years ago when he joined Lycos–one of the first companies I’d helped birth into being. The last was in 2012 when he attended a workshop I’d given on behalf of the guys at Venture51. In that workshop, Disappearing into the Fire: Surviving the Startup Life, I tried to address the emotional demands of this delusional thing called entrepreneurship.
I remember the end of that day, my voice raspy and tired, I paced the room asking in desperation, “What are we doing to ourselves? What are we losing when we pursue this magical, impossible task of building a company?” I wish I could say that I had looked into his eyes when I’d asked those questions. I hadn’t. But later, in that Jody way, he grabbed my hand with a firmness that felt even then a little too tight and said: “Thanks Jerry. That was great. Maybe we can grab coffee sometime and catch up.” I nodded and headed for water.
A distraught client emailed me the day after Jody died. So many people were hurt by the news–whether or not they knew him. I tweeted, emailed, reached out to friends. I wrote to Parker.
My request was simple: Help me help them. We decided the best way to respond was to embody what we believe: that speaking about the existential difficulties, being authentic even in our collective guilt, pain, and fear, is–as Parker coined it in Let Your Life Speak–Leading from Within. We would have a conversation about the ways in which this merger of self and work exacerbates the pain as well as Parker’s notion of the Tragic Gap. We’d invite others to join us.
The conversation, sponsored by Cojourneo and the Center for Courage and Renewal, is in two parts: the first will be via video chat on March 20 at 7:30 p.m. EDT. You can register for that here. The second will be in person on April 19 at 2 p.m. at Naropa University in Boulder; register here. Both are free.
I have no illusions about our coming up with solutions. I have my theories about why I think the entrepreneurial path is so damn hard but, really, I have no answers. And I’ve written plenty about those dealing with the Monsters (One client said last week, “Um, that’s all you ever write about.” Not true! Okay…so maybe it is true but still…). I just know that there’s something powerful in the simplicity of friends coming together, to listen and to hold each other.
What little I know about the Quaker wisdom tradition comes from my friend Parker. His vision of a Circle of Trust—which comes from that tradition–is such an exquisite example of the opportunity, the responsibility–before all of us: to be the friend whose hand holds another still; to make it okay for them to be with whatever is happening. Simply that.
And, with a nod to yet another wisdom tradition, it is in fact a heart-wrenchingly beautiful yet difficult and hard gift to be simple.
So we will sit, first on a Google Hangout and then later at Naropa. We will talk and we will listen. We will be together.
Yesterday my son Michael sent me a link to a video of a young poet. Watsky spoke to him. This morning, as I write, I recall Watsky’s deeply personal, deeply affirming observation: “We live in a house made of each other.”
Come sit with us. We’ll build that house.
If a sadness Rises in front of you, Larger than any you have ever seen; If an anxiety, like light and cloud shadows, Moves over your hands and everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, That life has not forgotten you, That it holds you in his hand And will not let you fall. Rilke