Thank you, Ted, Barb, Committe. It’s an honor to be asked to speak again this year.
I want to preface my talk by saying, if you’ll pardon the language, it’s been a hell-of-a-twelve-months since last I stood here before you.
Our world is a small one, so perhaps you already know of what I speak. But for those who don’t, let me just say my life has pretty recently changed in ways I could not predict or even imagine, in ways good and bad.
I’m going to tell you something personal, something I usually just savor quietly. The bad stuff was better than the good stuff. Know what I mean? Anyone? Look, good stuff makes you happy and that’s great. But bad stuff? It helps you appreciate the good stuff. And staying grateful is the key to happiness, friends. You may be thinking “I don’t want to sit through another meeting today,” or you may be thinking “I ate too much at lunch.” When what you could be thinking is “Look how blessed I am to have a full belly and a steady paycheck and sitting in a safe room far away from the horrible things I see on the news.”
I don’t want to sound like a drag. I hope you don’t take it that way. It’s just that the world is stuffed full of beauty, in every imaginable color and shade, if you open yourself up to accept the full spectrum. Even the blacks and greys of your worst days add shading and depth that enhances the bright days. Ever seen a Rembrandt painting? It’s all men in these dark rooms in stiff, dark clothes huddled around dirty dark tables with candles on them. And that candle light is the purest thing you’ve ever seen. Ever. It’s brilliantly bright but also delicate and warm, like what you might imagine whatever comes after death to be like. Because it’s in relief against all the dark around it.
I think we all know the light a little more than we know the dark. It’s easier to talk about the light, that’s for sure. But the dark is what I want to talk about today. See, all my life I’ve felt I was part of something bigger than me. I bet many of you do too. I thought that bigger thing was Change. Because Change is the only constant in life, for all of us. I am not the same collection of cells as I was yesterday. Tomorrow you will be a newer and older version of yourself. We all witness and embody Change constantly and fundamentally.
Who here likes change? Does anyone? I don’t. But friends, Change isn’t the dark. Change is what connects the light and the dark, the animal and civilized parts of our brains. The emotional wear and tear of consciously going through constant Change creates an open wound inside each of us that teaches us not only what pain is, but also gives us the empathy and sympathy we need in order to give a care about other people’s problems. It makes us human. I truly believe this. But it doesn’t make us grateful.
The dark isn’t about being human. The dark is about whatever we were before we were human. Let me tell you, in the days following the fire, I felt things I could not condone or explain. Blinding rage and icy sorrow. The urge to kill, to live, to die. The kind of joy that overwhelms you to the point of sadness because even as it uplifts you it reminds you of how small you are, in every conceivable way. Pride, lust, cunning, all magnified by my loss and my love. In those moments I was a primal being, totally open to feeling all of it.
I see I’m losing you a little bit. I get it, I apologize. I just get so excited about life these days.
To bring things back on track, and I know you’ve got a time limit for me here Barb, let me say that excitement has absolutely translated into increased results for me here at work. The whole reason I’m standing before you is that I am a story of what you can accomplish despite the odds. And it’s all because I learned to love the dark.
Let me ask: what does fear mean to you? Anyone?
Sure, it’s sharks in the ocean and bears in the woods and for some of us a certain somebody in the Oval Office. Heh. But let me tell you what I’m talking about when I say fear. There is the fight-or-flight kind where death is around the corner. But there’s also the quiet, insidious kind that eats away at you over time. I mean the kind that caused you to choose a seat that wasn’t in the front row. A seat where I won’t call on you to speak in public. The kind that keeps your shoulders slumped while you eat lunch at your desk. The kind that keeps you in that unhappy marriage because you don’t want to be alone, or eating that extra doughnut so you can stay away from e-mail a little longer.
How do you feel when I mention “fear?” These words are leaving my mouth, sliding up, then down, then up on a sound wave, crashing into your ears. Then the magic happens, pure alchemy: these words trigger chemicals in your body, and you feel something. Maybe that feeling is disdain, or boredom, or wariness, or curiosity. Whatever it is, you are not entirely in control. Now you are primal.
Here is what fear means to me. It is the dark. The unknown, the imagined threat, the moment before the knife falls, the unexplainable noise, loneliness, vulnerability. Hurt. Pain. Loss. Excuses. It doesn’t feel good. But I want to challenge you to re-consider the notion that feeling fear is a bad thing. It is a beautiful thing, a force of immense power in our lives.
Think that sounds crazy? Let’s take it apart. about how many choices you make in a day. Fifty? Two hundred? Five thousand? How many of those decisions are you making consciously? How many are you making on autopilot out of some vague sense of obligation or uncertainty? Probably a lot of them. That’s because fear is running your life.
But I have good news. And it’s not just that I’ll be done talking soon. It’s that you can conquer fear. It’s easy. All you have to do is embrace it fully. Feel it all the way from your toes to your hair. Remember that sensation of open-ness, of being immersed in the unknown. It is beautiful. When the moment ends, stay exactly that open. When good things happen they will envelop you. You will experience a greater happiness than you ever thought possible. At the same time you will feel sad because all happiness is fleeting. But you know all of it, dark and light, is part of life. You will experience more of both. You will continue to experience Change. You will find joy in the purity of emotion in the moment.
That’s it, really. Maybe you wanted something more complicated or impressive, or with a cool catchphrase. But it’s really as simple as staying open, and embracing your fear is the gateway. When the fire had cooled, my feelings boiled over, and as I let them run down all over me, my arms and legs, all through my insides, I discovered real joy. I stand before you here still smothered in feelings, suffused in joy even as I am slowly disintegrating. That joy translates into my dealings with you, with our customers, with the universe. It’s all one, after all.
…Barb, how’s that lunch buffet coming?