In November of last year, my wife and I, along with my son Jon, vacationed in several European countries in and around the former Yugoslavia. These included Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro then we polished off the two-week trip with a few extra days in Venice, Italy. Along our merry way’s, we were expertly guided by a friendly Slovenian fellow named Elvis.
Not exactly the most popular name in Slovenia, no. Elvis was awesome, of course, and provided us with some particularly informative local-information and history about the areas we were visiting as he had lived and grown up there during the former Communist regime of Yugoslavia. One of the things that made Elvis so great a guide for Americans was that he also watched and lived through the transition (1989 to present) of the entire region from Communism form of government to what I would now consider a quasi-capitalistic country.
Don’t you just love seeing a place through the eyes of someone who is utterly and madly in love with it? Elvis obviously loved his home country, and his colorful stories and self-deprecating style of humor made the trip so much more fun than it would have been with any ole other guide. The travel experience which would have normally been full of uncertainty and apprehension was instead transformed into almost full immersion. I think, as a family, we have come to enjoy and appreciate guided vacations much more than the typical do-it-yourself trips for that very reason. Another unexpected bonus is that my son made friends with Elvis and they’ve continued to communicate long after our return to Tennessee.
While we were there, we stumbled upon a couple who were deeply involved in sponsoring the educations of young women and girls in Africa. Their devotion to this cause was obvious and inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that Emily decided right then to also sponsor a young African girl. Her name is Peace and we’ve really enjoyed sending and receiving letters from her about her life and the African perspective. I don’t exactly know what happens in a person’s life that causes them to take on these enormous responsibilities such as this couple is doing but it is truly moving and inspirational to watch how their passion for doing good envelopes and captures others along the way to do the same.
I guess paying it forward begets paying it forward which makes for better karma if you believe in such things. But regardless of what we call it or how we frame it, we’re really talking about people who refuse to be normal, who refuse to be casual observers. These are people who go the extra mile, make the extra effort and spread the extra icing on the proverbial cake while they are simultaneously eating it. They’ve found something that they truly care about and they’ve found the passion within themselves to do it 110% and really make a difference in the world around them.
Each of us are deeply moved or affected by different experiences in our own way but one common truth we all recognize is that in life there are few accidents, at least as it pertains to success, failure or opportunity. Great things can happen to you organically, but you must be out there experiencing life in order for them to present themselves to you. Ripe apples don’t fall in your lap unless you’re intentionally sitting underneath an apple tree at the correct time of the year.
On a crisp November day, these kind people stopped what they were doing to make a sincere effort to get to know us. There are some people in this world who God put here for the sole purpose of listening, Dave Thelen is one of those people. At the time, I had just lost my brother so it wasn’t particularly easy for me to open up to a stranger but miraculously I did. He and his wife shared their lives and experiences with us and we were moved enough to do the same and we’re both much better off today because of it.
So many small moments of that vacation were magical, but something that has stayed with me was when Dave launched into a lyrical Aristotelian lecture about how important it is for people to work together in order to bring ideas to fruition, for each person to share his or her talents to work toward a common goal. It is all “a process,” he said, one that requires different perspectives and skills. The greater the width, breadth and diversity of the talent pool, the better the result. But you must be invested, you have to work at it if you expect any real change.
As my wife rattled off sentence after sentence, I said next to nothing during the hour (or was it two?) we walked the road encircling the enchanted Bled Lake. While in full view of the misty snow-capped Julian Alps, the 17th Century island-church in the middle of the lake and ancient Bled Castle on over-watch, I tried my best to concentrate on what was being said. Instead, I just snapped lots of photographs and listened — allowing Dave’s words and the surreal surroundings to wrap themselves around me, seep inside my brain, and make such an impression that I would never forget them even without the pictures.
I am naturally a quiet person and a listener at heart, but I am especially silent when I am in awe of someone, when I know this person has so much to teach me that my best course of action is to just shut my mouth and listen. In those situations, I relish the chance to absorb the information and tuck it all away to process later in quiet moments of reflection.
Now, almost exactly a year later, I realize that during those moments, I was gradually reaching a precipice to begin a new chapter of my life in order to write, blog (in whatever means) and encourage others to find and appreciate simple pleasures, live more deliberately, and to cut out the physical and emotional clutter from their lives.
By that point, I had been considering the thought of writing more seriously for years, but I was at that proverbial crossroads, still unsure of so many things — how would my family and longtime friends respond, etc.? I didn’t want to have one of those “Who are you and what did you do with my dad?” kinda moments, mainly because I’m not generally a vocal person.
Wanting to make a difference, I’ve realized that my greatest natural gift is my ability to communicate in writing. So here I am, doing what I’ve always done best, in order to help, promote, encourage, facilitate, inspire, or whatever. Although I hope that I can eventually achieve at least one of those, it will probably be “whatever”, and I’m completely ok with that.
I love to write, so I took this man’s thoughts about community, humanity and “process,” and applied them here among an already growing population of readers. I put faith in the idea that by writing about what I believe in and feel passionate about, those on the same wavelength will willingly offer up their own talents, skills, and visions, and together we can learn and grow together as a community.
Though my soft spot is for my son and his life’s expeditions and tribulations, I try very hard to write to everyone so that others can benefit from the rare positive energy I occasionally expel at a moment’s notice. I want Dave’s unselfish wisdom to be used and cultivated among anyone who cares to read it and pass it on.
That short visit to Europe reinforced my desire to not only keep this dream of writing and blogging alive, but also to make my ideas stronger, to enrich connections with family and friends, to explore topics and ideas that dig a little deeper, to make us all think and feel a little bit more — and, most of all, to continue to share our positive experiences with one another. Said differently, casual observers need not apply, because being a friend, spouse, parent or member of a community requires real effort, real honesty and real generosity. Not necessarily generosity of things; but generosity of thought, vision, historical and contextual view, passion and advice. To have a friend, you must be a friend.
Today I want to be your new friend like Dave was to me that day. I want to encourage you to get out there and seek connections, overtly enrich the lives of your friends and family by opening up and sharing yourself and your ideas with those who may not know you as well as they’d like to. Don’t just be a parent or a brother or a sister or a spouse. Be real.
Allow the real you to be known and understood. I want my child to really know who his father is, not just that I was his father…not just the parental side of me. I want to plant the seeds of acceptance and understanding so that when I’m gone, I haven’t inadvertently deprived anyone that I love of the one thing they will never be able to know afterward – Me.