Saturday, January 15, 2011


Some wisdom comes easy.  Some wisdom comes hard.

I've been around for a half-century and picked up some wisdom along the way.  The deepest, and costliest, came twenty years ago.

My childhood was comfortable and relatively happy.  Our family consisted of my mother (who ran the show), my father (who dutifully worked at a steady job and listened to my mother), me and my younger brother Richard.  (Those are my parents on the left.)

Everyone obeyed my mother -- she had the overpowering force of a tsunami.  Grown men quivered at the prospect of upsetting her and quickly complied with her instructions.  We all knew there was no choice.  Having my mother mad at you was a no-win situation: she would grind you down until you capitulated; the only question was when that would occur.  As they say of The Borg, resistance was futile.

Despite her forcefulness, my mother was loving and she sincerely intended to help us.  She believed she knew what was good for us and she was going to make sure those things happened.  Our opinions didn't count because she assumed she knew better.

My brother Richard was a year-and-a-half younger than me and he idolized me.  I urged Richard to find his own interests, pursue his own path but he doggedly followed me.  This started in early childhood when I, as older brother, led Richard around and looked after him.  It continued into later years even as I was exploring new things.  Richard imitated me to the point of choosing the same activities I engaged in (e.g., academics; sports), but unfortunately he always had less success with those activities.  I hated seeing Richard measure himself against me and come up short, so I tried to boost his self-confidence by steering him toward activities I had never engaged in and praising his efforts, wherever they reached.  (That's Richard on the left.)

All said, in retrospect, I had a happy upbringing.  Certainly better than some people's.  My family loved me; I loved them; we spent lots of time together; and we went camping every year.  (Camping is a vacation families take when they don't have a lot of money.)

So it came as a shock when, 20 years ago, my mother died.  She had breast cancer and passed away at the early age of 54.  My family reeled from the dolorous event.

Then, the following year, my brother Richard died of a heart-attack.  He was only 33.

These events rocked the foundation of my world.  My signposts, the people I used as landmarks, suddenly disappeared.  Their absence was disorienting.  Who was I, if not Barbara Jo's son?  Who cared if I died myself?  Where was I, if not in the company of my family?  Is the universe cold and uncaring?

I wrestled with these issues long after the shock of the deaths wore off.  I struggled to understand the central question in all our lives -- What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?

The answer I came up with, which I don't preach but merely state, is that we find meaning in our relationships to others.  For me, loving people and being kind is my natural calling.  Seeking to understand others and apply that knowledge to improve their lives uses my talents in the most important way.  I choose to help people -- and doing that creates meaning for my life.

The effect on me of the deaths of my mother and brother was so powerful that, even now, my chest heaves at the memory.   That tectonic emotional force propels my commitment to help people.  I  believe that helping people is the meaning of my life.

Have you figured out the meaning of your life?


  1. Wow, Ralph. You do have a gift. This glimpse into your life and look at some of the people who have defined you was powerful. As I was reading, I could really feel what you were talking about. Well done. I love that picture of your parents and the way your Mom is looking at the camera. We camped a lot when I was a kid, too. There's yet another thing we have in common. I am still trying to figure out why I am here...

  2. I think it's wonderful that despite the pain that you have continued to grow and help other people. I hope that I will be as strong one day.

    Great post. :)

  3. I'm so sorry for both your losses... to lose you mother only in your thirties, and a brother so young must have been a terrible shock for you.

    I have no idea how I would react. And I hope I don't have to learn.

    I've always tended to make family of my close friends, with some coming and going over the years. But my actual family is always there. Part of my recent struggles is that this is the first time I've been separated by long distance from my family "indefinitely". No end date in sight.

    Don't misunderstand... I made the move as an adult, with my eyes wide open. I chose love and marriage over the familiar comforts of life as I knew it. No regret, no changing my mind.

    But the feeling of being "an island", that my husband is the only person I can count on... is scary. If we quarrel, there's nowhere I can go to blow off steam. If he won't, or can't, cover something for me... I have to figure out a way to do it myself or do without.

    I'm accustomed to having lots of people to call on, and on being called on for help quite a bit.

    Wow... I'm actually tear-y just musing on this topic. While I am far away, I still have the reassurance that if the fit truly hits the shan, I can always return to the bosom of family. But you are dangling out there... frightening.

  4. Oh my gosh, you've been through some rough stuff, Shy. *hug* I lost my dad suddenly to a heart attack when I was 29, he was 55. It took a lot of soul-searching, but I think my own goal is similar: to be the best person I can be, and to give warmth and love.

  5. As you know, I'm coming up on 6 years since I lost my mom to cancer when I was only 24. It is just something that forever marks you; you are never the same. Whether or not you let it destroy you is up to you. I struggled really hard for a long time and then ultimately decided that I would not let it destroy me, both because I deserved it and because I knew she was watching and waiting for me to be happy again. I made up my mind to be happy again one day even at my lowest, darkest point...I still had a tiny store of hope deep down in a hidden reservoir. I pulled it out, and today after much effort and work on myself, I can say 100% that I did find happiness again and that I love my life and am beyond grateful!! I still have moments (or sometimes days) of unbearable pain, and she's always in my thoughts. But I know she's proud to see her little girl being happy and making the life she deserves. I believe yours feels the same way about you now, regardless of how she might not have understood your feelings on gender when she was alive...I believe their perspective after death transcends those sorts of things.

    I really enjoyed reading more about your family, despite the tragedy, because they live on even more when we talk about them - their little idiosyncrasies and quirks that make them "them."

    I have lots of purposes in life! But I think all of them ultimately revolve around love.

  6. I am LOVING your blog.. I love how write such reflective and interesting posts, even the one about motorbikes and knives was really great!! I agree with you, that its our relationships that give meaning. I mean, how many people ever look back on their lives and think " I wish I had worked more", no, instead they think " I should have spent more time with my family, or told xx that I love them"...for me, being connected to people and being REAL in my relationships is top of the list. Treating people like we really are all connected. Anyway, great post and I loved you Elizabeth Taylor photo (of her and of you!!)
    xox J

  7. I was sorry to read about your losses. I think it's a little odd that I'm the age I am and have never lost anyone to whom I was very close. I don't look forward to the day when I have that experience. Many of my friends have lost parents, siblings, children.. and its effect on them has been devastating.

    As to my purpose, I'm blessed that my marriage is amazing, but it doesn't provide me with "a purpose". I was actually thinking this week that my job, as all-consuming and exhausting as it can be, fits me like a glove. Every experience I've ever had, good or bad, comes into play and makes me more relevant, more resourceful, more credible.

    In my job's most basic form, I get paid to love people who need love more than most. And they love me back!! I get to be a mother, a sister, a friend, a coach, a teacher, a trainer, a salesman...When there's a crisis and all others are running out (literally) I get to run in, satisfying my need to be a hero once in a while. I really think this is where I'm meant to be and what I'm meant to be doing.

    Love you, friend. :hug:

  8. Wow, it is Amazing how you got through this so well. I think that when people go through hard things in life it makes them stronger. I know that you are a Fabulous and Truly Good person and I am very happy to know you. There are not many people in the world like you. You make me feel better about humanity.

  9. I am sorry about your losses. I admire how you have grown from your experiences, and continue to be a wonderful person. Thanks for sharing yourself with us.

  10. Thank you, guys, for sharing your thoughts and feelings. This was a serious post for me and you responded with kindness and insight. I'm proud to know you.

  11. I absolutely love what you said in this post. Perhaps this is why you and I have created such a wonderful friendship, even though it was formed in a rather unusual way.. We share the same belief that life is first and foremost about the relationships we have with others. I have always preached this message. Loving others and fostering relationships with those we come into contact with is certainly where the most fulfillment is found. People are relational. All people. Sometimes I will catch myself saying in moments of frustration or loneliness that I don't need anyone, but that just isn't true... People need people. The relationships we have with others are certainly the most valuable thing we can have in this life. You are incredibly wise for knowing that! I am so incredibly sorry about both of your losses, but I can assure you that you still have an unimaginable amount of people in your life who are glad to still have you with us... And I am definitely one of them!

  12. This was a very revealing post.
    I have to say that many of us go through difficult experiences, but it is how you react to those that shape you.
    I see that even though your path has been a rough one you have been able to make the best of it and appreciate life and those around you even more.
    You made the best of what you had.
    I am sure your parents and your brother are looking over you and are proud of the person you have become.
    BTW, I see a family resemblance, you look like your parents.