Thursday, August 12, 2010

Peripheral Vision

There are times when you receive information that sticks with you even though you might not fully appreciate or understand its meaning at the time.

Earlier this week, I attended an educational session at the National Business Travel Association in Houston, TX, about the importance of flexibility and adaptability in uncertain times. One quote that several of us in the room wrote down was: "The price of excessive focus is the lack of peripheral vision."

I copied it down because it is a great quote and because it is true. Over the past few days, the quote has taken on a deeper meaning in the wake of a terrible loss.

There is a man with whom I was friendly, which is to say I barely knew him. He was overtly friendly and funny with a ready devilish smile. He told jokes and enjoyed eliciting laughter from anyone who might be around him at any given moment.

In many ways, he was the polar opposite of a different young man I met twenty-four years in college. This fellow I knew at college was often moody, quick to anger, and willing to go out of his way to agitate and antagonize both friend and foe for no other reason than he felt like it. Despite his surface faults -- and mine -- we became good friends.

To the best of my knowledge, the primary similarities between these two men is they both were born in 1968 and they both chose to end their own lives.

Since August 1992, when my college friend committed suicide, I have wondered what could drive a person to consider such drastic action. What problem could create such consuming despair?

There have been times in my life when insecurity and fear have made me want to hide or bury my head in the sand until a pressing problem or embarrassment had passed. Even so, never have I considered the solution to any of my problems could come from eliminating me from the equation, even when I knew I was the direct cause of my problem.

Despite the dire and depressing prospect of a dark situation, I seem to remain capable of seeing a glimmer of light on the horizon. I remain conscious of the knowledge that all troubles are temporary, all setbacks offer opportunities to overcome them, and no matter how poorly I feel about myself there is always someone -- even if not always the person I expect -- who is looking forward to the next time they see me.

These truths are enough to keep me firmly grounded in the belief that I have value and purpose. Life goes on, and I cannot imagine not being a part of it. Unfortunately, not everyone is so affirmatively grounded.

Eighteen years ago, in response to my college friend's death, I wrote the following: "Bill's problems grew so great and his world became so small in early August that he couldn't remember he had many friends and relatives who would have tried to help him if he had only reached out to us."

Without a firm base of knowledge and nothing but surmises and guesses to claim as support for my reasoning, I believe the same thing happened in August 2010 to my other friend. Like Bill before him, he became so focused on a single, seemingly unsurmountable problem that he lost the peripheral vision necessary to see the prospect of a brighter tomorrow and the faces of friends and loved ones who likely could have supported him through his despair had they known he needed them.

In 1992, the death of my friend served as a wake up call for me to stop living like a wallflower, waiting for my life to come find me. I stepped up to the plate and, regardless of the outcome, started swinging. My life is richer as a result, and I owe much of it to the lesson taught to me by the tragic and unnecessary loss of my friend. I have, in the past two decades, lived a fuller life. I am doing the things I want to do with the people who mean the most to me. I am living in a rewarding present while planning for a rewarding future. I have reconnected with a long-dormant passion for writing even as I experience a daily passion for my wife and children greater than ever before.

I wish I could say the tragedy of this August will serve as a similar inspiration but I am older, more grounded, less malleable, and I hope not in need of learning the same lesson again. My hope is the lesson I learned many years ago about the value of life will this time find someone who needs it now like I needed it then.

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