The text message came in from my sister about 9:00 on the evening of Friday, March 26: I may have really bad news. Sarah has been missing. I’m on my way to the police to see a photo of a body. My heart was racing; my head was spinning. A voice inside was saying: These things don’t happen in our family.
Within an hour, it was confirmed. This had, in fact, just happened in our family. A murder.
Sarah was my sister’s oldest grandchild – 21 years old, a vibrant and outgoing young woman who was studying to be a large-animal veterinarian. Because we lived far apart, I rarely saw Sarah until she was a teenager. And even then, we were only together for a few hours every couple of years. That said, we had a nice connection. I admired her openness, her curiosity about life, and her sense of herself. We always enjoyed good conversations about school, travel, and her aspirations for the future. She was a bright light. I have no doubt that she will keep shining her light on all of us from the other side.
As I grapple with the reality of her violent death, I am also haunted by that initial thought: These things don’t happen in our family. It’s made me reflect on how we see ourselves and the people in our inner circles. In my mind, the phrase “our family” soon translated into “people like us.” And that brought more questions.
Who are “people like us?” How do I describe them? What is it about them that tells me they are like us?
And who are people who are “not like us?” How do I know that? What about them makes them not like us?
Almost as soon as I ask the questions, I realize I don’t have answers.
Is it about how they look or how they dress or their body image? Is it people who fit into a certain socio-economic class? It is about their politics, or their spiritual or religious affiliations, or their gender conformity?
Is it about the kinds of experiences they have had? Whether or not they have traveled? Or about their level of success or influence on others? Is it about whether or not we share similar opinions about what matters and why?
If I’m really honest, combinations of all of those considerations probably play in my subconscious mind. Acknowledging that doesn’t feel good.
Perceptions of Self
I consider myself to be pretty open, progressive, and inclusive in my thoughts and beliefs. I know who I am and what is important to me. And I’ve learned a lot in my 66 years about how life works.
So, it took me by surprise when I heard myself thinking almost immediately, “But these things don’t happen in our family.” Where did that thought come from? What assumptions am I holding onto about who we are as a family and who I am, and who we are not?
It quickly became clear to me that I still have biases that I’m not consciously aware of. Biases that are still hanging on from growing up in the American South. Biases that come from the unacknowledged privileges I enjoy because of my station in life – successful white male.
Meanwhile, I looked for words to describe who we are as a family. Nothing felt right. The best I could come up with was “loving” – except for when we aren’t. “Generous,” except for when we aren’t. “Affirming of others,” except for when we aren’t. “Blessed,” no doubt more than we realize. Perhaps you can relate.
Living from a Deeper Place – A Place Where There is No “Like Us” and “Not Like Us”
One of my motivations for stepping back from leading the signature Transformational Presence programs was that I was feeling called to live from a deeper place. I knew that I could only get to that deeper place when my life was quieter. My hope was that expanding my one-on-one mentoring and coaching practice would create more space to meet others in that deeper place. And indeed, it has – in more beautiful ways than I could have imagined.
However, Sarah’s shocking death has taken me even deeper. And it has made me question how I think about who I am and what really matters to me. While I may be a “successful white male” on the outside, I am uncomfortably reminded that underneath that exterior – underneath all I strive to be and do to make a difference in this world – I am “everyman.” We all are.
Stripping away skin color, socio-economic status, gender association, country of origin, religious heritage, education, and title, we are all human beings. Red blood flows through our veins. We live, for the most part, in relationship with others. We are tribal by nature, driven by a need for connection and belonging. We experience love as well as loss, accomplishment as well as failure, togetherness as well as separation. The highs and lows of our lives may vary in detail, yet the essence of the human experience is remarkably the same.
From this fundamental reality, then “our family” is “everyfamily.” And so is yours. From this perspective, there is no “like us” and “not like us.” We’re all just “us.” There is no “them.”
Intellectually, I know all of this. So do you. Yet now, because this thing happened in our family, I know it on another level. Deep in my belly. In every fiber of my being. It will not let go of me.
How many times? What does it take?
How many times do I – do we – have to experience tragedy or loss before we choose to live every moment from the “everyman” place? What does it take for us to meet one another in the heart of being? That place within each of us that knows and feels the interconnection of everyone and everything. That place of profound love and compassion for all of life.
Since Sarah’s death, I have been sitting in this deeper place. It’s not a new place for me. Yet I didn’t live here; I dropped in from time to time. That’s not enough anymore. I was already longing for more time here. Now it’s not an option. I can’t not be here.
I am aware that living here requires being willing to be present with the full spectrum of the human experience. From the most sublime to the most devastating. With myself and with everyone I encounter. Everyone.
If I can do that, perhaps that will inspire someone else to do the same.
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The day after Sarah was killed, someone posted this five-minute video on a family member’s Facebook page. It’s Melanie DeMore singing her song “Sending You Light” in live performance with pianist Julie Wolf. Watch, listen, and let it touch your heart.
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- Our Three Intelligences and the Power of Choice in Troubled Times
- Healing a Broken World Will Take Long-Term Commitment – Here’s How We Can Start Today
- Collecting Self, Holding Each Other, Finding Our Way
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