The Hand of A Friend

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.
  • Carl Rahn Griffith

    Beautiful words. Thank you, Jerry.

    Ironically, just earlier today, I decided to go ‘offline’ for a few days – I Tweet’ed to that effect – I don’t know how long for. Primarily to try and think more clearly, without the habit-forming distractions of being online 24/7 – it’s getting to feel a bit Pavlovian. The evenings are getting lighter, the weather is gently warming-up – time to reconnect more with nature.

    However, I am very glad I went online to read this (by going offline I refer more to my use of tools such as Twitter, et al). As an aside, apropos this blog topic, I have just read Buzz Aldrin’s ‘Magnificent Desolation’ – recommended.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Carl. I’m a huge fan of life lived offline. I’ll check out Magnificent Desolation.

  • Rohan

    A poem came to mind – The Man in the Glass

    When you get what you want in your struggle for self,
    And the world makes you king for a day,
    Just go to the mirror and look at yourself,
    And see what THAT man has to say.

    For it is not your father or mother or wife
    Whose judgment upon you must pass.
    The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
    Is the one staring back in the glass.

    Some people might think you are a
    straight shootin’ chum and call you a wonderful guy,
    But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum,
    If you can’t look him straight in the eye.

    He’s the fellow to please,
    never mind all the rest,
    For he’s with you dear up to the end.
    And you have passed your most dangerous, difficult test
    If the guy in the glass is your friend

    You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
    and get pats on the back as you pass.
    But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
    If you have cheated the man in the glass.

  • Jeffrey Hartmann


    The eternal quest we have chosen to build something greater then ourselves definitely takes its toll on a great many of us. Life is chaos at times, and chaos is both incredibly beautiful and at the same time demonically scary. I find working on grounding yourself every day to be exceptionally important for me, I talk to my wife and hold, hug and read to my son. Depression can be a tough thing to deal with, and I really like the concept of depression as something holding you down on safe ground. It seems from my experience that perspective matters so very much, and I think this is a beautiful way of looking at it.

    I deal with daily pain due to an auto immune disease. It sucks some days (today my pain is more then usual, the weather is changing), and other days I feel like the problem is not much of a burden at all. Over the past year though, I have found that even when my pain isn’t where I want it to be, it is manageable. I have come to terms with it. I feel that this is due to my perspective, I know that we all have our demons and my demon’s are nowhere near as vicious as what others have to deal with. There are people who can’t walk, can’t think, can’t breathe. So I have pain to deal with, but I still can live a full and rich life. This sentiment helps me put my life in perspective. I feel the perspective is everything, it holds us and grounds us. Thank you Jerry for sharing your perspective with us today, know that you really are helping us all.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thank you Jeffrey. Thinking that you took the time to read, let alone write, despite your daily struggle with pain is heart-warming and moving.

      Your point about chaos is especially powerful. I spent the day at an envisioning session for Naropa University where I serve as a trustee and we spoke often about the power of chaos to fuel creativity. Chaos is simply an aspect of life.

      • Jeffrey Hartmann

        Several years ago I came to grips with my demon, to reuse the Buddhist analogy you have used before I put my head in the demons mouth and have survived and prospered. We all have something we deal with, it is what makes us human. Whether it is depression, anxiety, pain, mental or something physical we are all flawed. I find that stories of human frailty and how we conquer and overcome it are things of great beauty.

        I totally agree with you about chaos, I personally think chaos and how we deal with it as creators is an essential part of the fire that shapes us. For me, I know that the act of bringing order into the world by creating software that solves problems and building an enduring business has been fueled by chaos. It is funny how the two are always there for me, yin and yang, order and chaos. Obviously I don’t always like it and I don’t think any of us can claim that we are conquerors, but knowing that when the wheels come off that it is just part of the natural order of things is really powerful for me. It helps me stand up and make me want me to get out my blowtorch and get to work.

        • jerrycolonna

          A funny thing happens for me (and, I suspect, for most others as well) when I put my head to the mouth of the demon and tell him to eat me…I find myself less challenged, less bereft, less alone, more capable, more “brave” (whatever that means), and–importantly–more connected with people.

          This post, and your comments, are two examples. I said aloud something that was fearful for me to admit (“Oh shit, what if my kids read this!!??”) and found companionship. You shared your daily pain. I can’t speak for it’s impact on you but I can tell you that it made me sit up and notice and connect even further.

          And I think there’s solace in that connectedness.

          Chaos is crazy good and crazy scary. At the risk of sounding even more crazy, check out Shiva, the Hindu deity known both as the Destroyer and the Transformer.

  • Solome Tibebu

    @jerrycolonna:disqus any chance of setting up another one of these elsewhere? (like Minneapolis?? :) I’d like to get involved, thanks.

    • jerrycolonna

      Hey Solome…Thanks for asking. Parker and will probably regroup after the Boulder event and see where we stand. We’ve had a few other inquiries as well but it’s probably best to see how this next event goes. It helps thinking that someone on the ground would help organize things.

  • Abhay Vardhan

    Jerry, Thanks for the touching article. I am a co-founder of a startup myself and have gone through the ride. I am also going through a lot in my personal life. I have found a lot of strength and hope in Buddhist meditation.

    • jerrycolonna

      As have I, Abhay. Meditation in particular was especially helpful in my no longer being medication.

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  • Jeff Brunson

    Wow! I’ve been reading Parker for a few months now. My Coach and I are studying to become even better listeners in this work we are called to do. She has been studying NLP, and I have been studying with the beautiful writings of Parker J. Palmer. Thank you for this post. Indeed, we navigate treacherous waters in this solo work we do … which of course is not solo at all!

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re welcome Jeff. Parker’s been a gorgeous companion on the journey and the work has been nourishing even as it challenges.

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  • Michael Uram, MA, LMFT

    Jerry, I just came across your article. I am enlightened by Parker’s perspective of depression. I am now checking out his work and website. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sure many other readers have realized that they are not alone…