“In Harry’s Words”
It is an honor to be asked to speak with you today. You are all living proof of the promise that is available in this great nation of ours. Each of you has risen to the pinnacle of success in business, in the professions, and in the engine of the economy which has made this the greatest nation of earth.
As we begin this time together I want you to do one thing: before you get settled comfortably in your chair, take a coin out of your pocket and lay it on the table near you. [Give them a few moments to do it. When they settle down, continue.]
It would be presumptuous of me to seek to advise you about how to succeed. You have done it and I, in my own little corner of the world, have found success as well. We have been given the gifts of knowledge, of foresight, and an ability to organize. We have all learned how to attack a problem and to turn it into an opportunity. By experience, by forethought, and — more often than we might want to admit — by sheer good luck, we have found ways to work through challenges and bring them to a good result.
And yet I suspect that many of us have also found ourselves at a point in our lives where there is a new challenge that we cannot easily define. We have achieved that for which we have been striving for years — and even for decades. And having accomplished the goal, we look about and we wonder: “What next?”
I don’t know about you, but as I look back over my life I have discovered some fascinating truths. Climbing the ladder, struggling up each rung, facing each succeeding barrier, was exciting! There was the goal before me. It was out of my grasp but not beyond my reach. And as long as I kept my eye on the goal, I knew in which direction I needed to move.
Sometimes I moved up one rung and then slid down two. At other times I found something blocking my way and had to crawl to the other side of the ladder and move up hand-over-hand while dangling by my fingertips! But always, there was the goal before me. I had purpose; I had determination; I knew where I wanted to go.
And now that I have reached my goals, I sometimes realize that the happiest times were when I struggled the most!
I trust that all of us here have now acquired all that we need. And we probably also have obtained many of the things we want! (And we all know there is a difference!) Then the question comes again, “What next?”
What shall we do with the security we have built? How shall we genuinely enjoy the fruits of life-long challenges met and goals obtained? Or more to the core of the issue: How can our lives have meaning from this point on?
Again, I cannot presume to tell you what you must do. I can, however, share with you how my life has found new meaning in these years of my life.
A great teacher once said, whoever seeks to save his life will lose it; but whoever lose his life will keep it. Now that may sound like a round-robin comment that somehow falls back in on itself. But in fact it is filled with profound truth.
Now, take that coin I mentioned at the beginning, place it in the palm of your hand, and now close your hand so as to grasp the coin.
You have it held securely. It will now fall out. No one can snatch it from you. You cannot lose it. Am I right?
Now, open your hand. Do you see the coin laying there? And how much room is there left?
Here is my question: In which position will your hand hold more?
When your hand is closed, how many more coins will fit in?
When your hand is open, how many more coins will it hold?
And therein is the profound truth I have discovered that has given my life meaning, and purpose, and fulfillment, and pleasure, and joy: it is in approaching the world around me with an open hand that I am made new.
There is a story I want to share with you. I was nearing the summit of my professional life. It had been my privilege to assist companies in sorting out their difficulties and aiding them to move to profitability. Individuals with particularly thorny finance and tax issues were seeking my council to make plans which would benefit them, their employees, and the generations which would follow them. I no longer needed to seek out clients; they were coming to me and sending their friends along as well. Life was good.
A client, who was also a member of my church asked if I would help a group of folks who were going to prepare and serve a meal for the poor. Seeing a hole in my schedule, and wanting to try something different, and to support my client in something that was important to her, I agreed.
We traveled into the most depressed section of town, and there we found an old candy store that had been converted into an emergency food pantry and a place where people from the neighborhood could come for a hot meal in the middle of the day. In that little kitchen I was reminded of how sparse the living accommodations had been when I started out to seek my fortune. In what had been the kitchen for the two-bedroom apartment of the owners of the candy store were two stoves, a refrigerator, a couple of beat-up tables. Over in the former living room and dining room were some old fold-up tables which could seat thirty people at a time, as long as they were friendly!
Working in that kitchen was like going to your senior prom: it was very hectic and we moved past each other like dancers on a crowded ballroom floor, each moving to their assigned tasks. Some cooked hot dogs in large pots; others were opening packages of buns and adding them to some potato chips on the paper plated. Assembling these items, and adding to each plate a cup of Kool-Aid, we bumped and bounced past each other serving lunch to whomever came in from the street. What a far cry from the boardrooms where much of my work was done!
Things fell into a rhythm and we learned how to dance with one another. Evidence of our progress could be measured by how we were spilling less and less on the floor. I worked in my shirt sleeves right alongside my client, waiting on tables and being attentive to people who probably had not been waited on in a very long time. This was a real reversal of roles: often my client and I would meet over lunch, both of us dressed in our suits and ties, being served a variety of wondrous food, on china plates, by uniformed waiters.
What I learned about my client as a real person that day, by serving as part of something that was important to him, was more than I had ever gleaned by poring over financial reports! He became more of a real person to me that day, and I learned the joy of seeing the results of my work right before my eyes. No longer did I have to wait for some tax court to render a decision on my work — sometimes years after I had done it. I saw hungry people being fed, and I could measure the worth of what I had done by seeing the gratitude in their eyes for doing something as simple as bringing them a plate of food.
As the noon rush passed, I took a few moments for a break and stepped out onto the back stoop of this old, converted store. What I saw laying out before me was a large section of ground on which homes had once stood. It what had been a solid neighborhood, occupied by hardworking tire builders, there was now nothing but empty ground. The homes were long gone, some falling victim to fire, others to neglect. Some years before the city had leveled those dwellings and what was left were empty lots that some found a convenient dumping ground for trash. I was saddened to remember what had been and was no more.
But then I saw something else. I don’t quite know how to describe it in words, except to say that I caught a vision. No, I wasn’t struck down by a bolt of lightning; the sky didn’t open and I didn’t hear a voice. But I saw something else. I saw a possibility of what could be.
The organization who ran the food pantry was a group of volunteers who offered a number of things to the people of this section of town. They did their work out of church basements, and unused school classrooms, and borrowed spaces – – and this old converted candy store.
And I caught a vision of how that land could be leveled, and graded, and become a single new building that would get the volunteers out of the basements and into a facility that could serve the many challenges faced everyday by people who live on the margins. People who have not climbed the ladder; people who didn’t even know that a ladder existed.
I couldn’t have told you at the time why I did it, but I began to make inquiries about the land on which those old homed had stood. There were eleven vacant lots all clustered together. Some of them had been foreclosed for taxes. Others were on the verge of the same. A few were owned by folks who had left them long ago.
As an accountant for fussiness I knew how to make bargains, and I put those skills to work. I got the county to donate some of them; they even forgave the back taxes on a few. A couple of owners were glad to give them away in return for a tax deduction. There were some where I had to invest some money. But, over a period of (#) years, I gathered those eleven parcels and gave them to the group. And so they sat for 15 years.
We can all be proud of what we have accomplished. Through skill and wise decisions, we have succeeded in our lives and have reached a place of comfort and security. Our families are safe and their daily needs are being met. But is we are truly honest with ourselves, we know we have not accomplished these things alone.
Along the way we have been gifted with good friends, wise business associates, loyal employees, and sound advice. We have been counseled by others and we have taken their insight and turned it into success. We have not done these things all by ourselves.
After fifteen years of laying fallow, the land I mentioned gained a new purpose. A man come to the organization as its leader, and be began his work by listening. He listened to volunteers who cooked meals, and who helped children learn to read, and who cared for the sick. And one day, he listened to me. I told him the story of that day I had coked hotdogs, and the vision that had been given to me, and what I had done in response to it.
He took my story and the stories of the hundreds of people who invested their time and he helped us to see the vision that was rooted in our experience.
Last October, I stood in the Chapel of the newly-constructed building, as it was consecrated to its use; to be a ‘Beacon of Hope’ in the heart of the city. And…I wept.
What I had seen in the vacant land had been turned into a $2 million dollar building with an almost $1 million dollar endowment. And…I wept.
Why did I weep you might ask, I wept because in that moment, unlike any other in my life, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I knew that all the success I had achieved had been a gift and I shared some of that gift with another, and it had been returned to me a hundredfold. I had found the answer to my question; “What next?”
I learned that for me, the greatest enjoyment of the fruits of my labor came when I was willing to open my hand to offer my knowledge, my skill, my experience and my money to make the lives of people I did not even know a little better.
My challenge to all of us this day, as each of us seeks the answer to what is next in our lives- as we search for those acts which help us find new meaning and purpose in our lives- is to do for someone else what has been done for us!
If we can overcome the arrogance which is a temptation of success, we know that we have been gifted throughout our lives by people who approached us with open hands and they too are willing to share their gifts, knowledge, experience, advice and wisdom – with us; with their help, we have achieved success- as their hands were open, they too were able to receive more in return.
Let me ask that we consider how we might approach life with open hands and thereby receive even more in ways that are not measured by portfolio balances, but in a sense of lives lived with purpose.
I have one more story to offer. While this might sound like a Paul Harvey program, I must tell you it was given to me by the man who came to listen with open hands, and thereby helped give birth to dreams.
He was a poor Scottish Farmer;
One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the sound. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. The farmer pulled the lad out and saved him from what would have been a slow and terrifying death.
The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegant dressed Nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy the farmer had saved. “I want to repay you,” said the Nobleman. “You saved my sons life.” “No, I can’t accept payment for what I did” the Scotsman replied waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel. “Is that your son?” asked the Nobleman. “Yes,” the farmer replied proudly. “I’ll make you a deal, let me provide him the level of education my son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of.”
And that he did.
The farmer’s son attended the very best schools and in time, he graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London and went on to become known throughout the world as the scientist who discovered a life-saving drug.
Years afterwards, the same Nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia. His life was saved once more. His life was saved by…Penicillin. It had been discovered by the son of the farmer, who is remembered todays as; Sir Alexander Fleming.
The name of the Nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name? Winston. (Winston Churchill).
Who knows what might be accomplished when we approach life with OPEN HANDS?
In Remembrance of our beloved friend,
Mr. Harry A. Donovan