Our Broken Understanding of Each Other

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Source: the Advocate

We don’t understand each other. In case you missed our current national turmoil.

Recent anlysis on what Democrats guess about Republican demographics and what Republicans think about Democratic demographics says we get a lot of things wrong about each other. Democrats think Republicans are older, more Evangelical, more Southern, and richer than they actually are. Republicans think Democrats are less Godly, blacker, gayer, and more unionized. And by wide margins.

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Source: FiveThirtyEight.com

And that’s from polling originally done in 2015! Does anyone think those misperceptions haven’t gotten better in our current national climate?

If we don’t  understand who people from different parts of the country or holding different view points actually are, how can we understand their experience?

I had the chance to observe someone else’s experience recently: a bail hearing at the Orleans Parish Courthouse in New Orleans.

Imagine seeing someone who has been arrested for a misdemeanor drug charge being held in an orange jumpsuit, with shackles around their wrists and ankles, just for the opportunity to have bail set. Does that feel “innocent until proven guilty”?

I don’t think so.

Imagine being held in jail because bail is set higher than you can afford, again for a misdemeanor drug arrest, thus allowing you to sit in jail for 45 days until the prosecuting attorney might decide whether or not to charge you? Does that feel “innocent until proven guilty”?

I don’t think so either.

And what if at the end of that 45 days, at which point you’ve probably lost your job, and perhpas your home, the prosecutor offers you a plea deal. Maybe you didn’t even do it. Maybe you did, but the evidence against you is flawed and successful prosecution is unlikely. But, you have a choice: sit in jail for months (maybe even years) awaiting trial or take the plea, including accepting the crime on your record, to get out of jail and back to your life.

Maybe you’re even charged with a felony. Take the same scenario, even for non-violent felons. But now the prosecuting attorney has 60 days to decide whether to charge you. On day 61 they offer a plea deal: accept guilt, time served, and go on probation…or stay in jail for months to prove your innocence while your life leaves you behind. That’s a deeply unpleasant choice, with little in the way of justice involved.

What happens with a felony conviction on your record? You’ll have trouble voting. You’ll have trouble getting a job. You’ll be denied public housing, food stamps, and other programs we as a society has agreed would be helpful to give people a helping hand up. Dare I say, to be rehabilitated and productive members of society again.

All because you may have been arrested (perhaps on flawed charges) and couldn’t afford bail for a non-violent offense.

I saw such things unfold during that recent observation of a bail hearing. Add in the brief opportunity for arrested individuals to speak for a few minutes with a public defender prior appearing before a judge to have bail set. Add in the confusion on their faces as the fast-paced hearing moves forward, full of court lingo, and boom…in a matter of minutes, you’re stuck in jail because you and your family can’t afford bail.

So, you might be saying, Eric, that can’t happen. People can’t sit in jail for months or years for non-violent offenses.

I used to believe that too.

Then there are statistics like this:

Overall, [Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association executive director] Ranatza said there are 2,181 people who are being held in Louisiana jails that have been there for a year or more without going to trial. That’s about 15 percent of the combined jail populations of 14,041 people who had not been convicted of any crime yet, according to information provided by Ranatza.

Of those 2,181 people:

  • 1,507 had been held between one and two years without a trial;

  • 448 had been held between two and three years without a trial;

  • 141 had been held between three and four years without a trial; and

  • 85 people had been held more than four years without a trial.

In one horrific case, a man was recently ordered release on appeal for lack of a speedy trial. He had been awaiting trial on a drug charge for eight years!

Yes, New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole is a gnarly place as far as injustice in the criminal justice system goes.

You might also say: “Eric, that wouldn’t happen where I live.”

Really? Police never target minority neighborhoods for drug crime, including petty crimes like marijuana? Black Americans are not arrested for drug possession at disproportionate rates to their drug use even though they use drugs at the same rate as white Americans? You think those same subtle – or not so subtle – levels of discrimination don’t exist where you live?

I used to believe that such discrimination didn’t exist. I grew up white, upper-middle class, in the Seattle burbs, going to a college prep K-12 school. Then I came to New Orleans, saw the abject poverty in historically African American neighborhoods, cursed with the legacy of decades of Jim Crow, a largely abominable public school system, and an economy limping along amidst the lingering malaise, apathy, and corruption of Louisiana. Most importantly, I read the stories of a criminal justice system that is really efficient at over-arresting, over-charging, and over-sentencing…lots of black people. And it’s not right.

And as much as things in Louisiana might be on the extreme end of this problem in America, we’re all on the same spectrum of the problem. It’s just a question of degree, even if our ideals should remain the same.

Let’s remind ourselves of some basics rights in the Constitution and the amendments to protect the rights of the individual and the accused. The 4th – 8th Amendments in the Bill of Rights specifically secure:

  • protection against unreasonable search and seizure
  • protection of due process
  • protection from self-incrimination
  • protection from double jeopardy
  • the right to a speedy trial
  • the right to a jury trial
  • the right to counsel in one’s defense
  • protection from excessive bail
  • protection from excessive fines
  • protection from cruel and unusual punishment

The 14th later added “equal protection under the laws.”

All these things were viewed as rather important, and necessary, for justice in our country.

Now, consider this: until the era of cell phones and body camera, police misbehavior was a largely foreign concept for most of us living in the suburbs or rural America, and sometimes even urban neighborhoods that aren’t poor or dominated by poorer minorities.

Well, there aren’t any cell phones and body cameras in the court room.

So, the next time you hear or read about some horror story in the criminal justice system and think, “that’s terrible…but that would never happen where I live.”

I ask you, think again. Do you really know what the criminal justice system is like? Do you know what the life of someone who grew up and lives in entirely different circumstances from you is really like?

Maybe you could consider how you can find a way to learn more about some part of our society you might not know very well. It might be as simple as seeking out conversation with someone you encounter regularly in your life, who you know hails from dramatically different circumstances.

Now do something about that.

We could all use some better understanding of each other.

A Salute to the Dark Knight

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A drawing of Kam Chancellor by Keegan Hall. This piece caught Kam’s eye and launched Keegan’s career as an artist. 

The retirement of Kam Chancellor, one of the greatest Seahawks of all time, and one of professional footballs greatest strong safeties, was both expected and jarring. Expected in that the severe neck injuries cited in his semi-cryptic Twitter announcement were known to be a likely career-ender. Jarring, in that it truly is the end of an era.

Part of Bam Bam Kam’s most visible greatness and source of his professional reputation were the fearsome hits he delivered on opponents. National and local retrospectives of Kam’s career are dominated by recitation of his reputation as a jarring hitter (Vernon Davis anyone?).

Yet, those reminisces miss the point of Kam’s true greatness. He was more than the fiercest hitter on a defense that was the best in the NFL for five years.

Kam Chancellor was the soul of the Seahawks, and the best player on the defense that crushed opponents on the path to a Super Bowl XVVIII victory.

Soul? Yes, soul. Amidst all the big, vocal names out there on that Seahawk roster including Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, et. al…it was Kam Chancellor who as a unifying force:

“It is Chancellor whom teammates credit for uniting the locker room on the way to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.”

And how did he exert the leadership to unite them? As that ESPN Magazine profile explores, Kam used to be soft-spoken. Yet, he evolved:

“One player speaks before each Seahawks game, a rotating core of four or five superstars, but teammates say that Chancellor’s speeches feel most akin to a religious chant. He closes his eyes. His muscles tense up. He opens his eyes and looks possessed, demanding eye contact with every player on the team.”

Ok, then.

There’s a reason he was declared “the Dark Knight”:

“He’s a freaking monster,” [Richard] Sherman said. “Kam Chancellor damages people’s souls. He plays in a dark place. We feed off him, all game long. He’s an intimidator, an aggressive ballplayer who plays by the rules.”

Those things were said about Kam after his dominating performance in the 2014 Divisional Playoff Round, where Seattle buried the Carolina Panthers with the aid of a dominant, 11 tackle, 90 yard-interception-return-for-a-TD performance from that Dark Knight.

Sadly, the 2014 season ended on an auspicious, dreadfully sad note on the one yard line. A play that will live in infamy in Seahawks history.

What about the previous years Super Bowl victory?

Kam was the unsung hero.

After the Seahawks dispatched the 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, on the backs of a famous play — and even more famous post-game interview — from Richard Sherman, famous NFL writer Peter King declared Kam “the player of the game” and predicted:  “In the Super Bowl, the collisions between him and Julius Thomas could be legendary.”

Close, it was this hit on Denver Bronco receiver Demaryious Thomas early in the first quarter that set the tone for the game on defense:

You want to come across the middle on the Legion of Boom, friend? Ok, it’s gonna be a long day for y’all.

And it was.

Chancellor’s box score from that game: 14 tackles, 2 passes defensed, and one interception. Were it not for the visual fanfare of Malcom Smith returning a wayward Peyton Manning pass (thanks to a hit on Manning from Cliff Avril) for a touchdown Kam would have been the MVP of the game. Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated agreed:

After the game, Peter King called him “the baddest strong safety in football,” declaring the Seahawks defense Kam personified to be responsible for: “[a]s dominating and intimidating a performance as I remember in a Super Bowl.” Saying moreover:  “The analysis of this Super Bowl will center, rightfully, on a voracious defense. This was without a doubt one of the best defensive performances in Super Bowl history.”

And Kam’s dominance extended to the playoff games leading up to the that Super Bowl. When King called him the player of the game against the 49ers, Chancellor racked up 11 tackles (including one for loss), 2 passes defensed, and an interception.

Against the Saints in the Divisional Playoff Round Kam had 14 tackles (including one for loss) and 2 passes defensed.

That’s three playoff games ending in a Super Bowl ring: 35 tackles (2 for loss), 6 passes defensed, and and two interceptions. That’s as good a playoff run as you’ll find for a defensive player in the NFL. Ever.

But, it all came at a cost, even before the final neck injury that finished his career, there was this (from that same ESPN Magazine profile):

“Chancellor was the defensive enforcer, roaming the backfield with a dark visor and the word “Bam” tattooed on both shoulders. His presence intimidated receivers into changing their routes, and his fearsome hits became legendary around the league. But in so many of those collisions, he suffered as much damage as he inflicted: He had hip surgery, bone spurs, nagging injuries to his ankles and knees. He was hospitalized for three days because of trauma and internal bleeding after the Super Bowl in February 2014. A year later, he played his second Super Bowl with a torn MCL in a knee that had swollen to nearly twice its normal size.”

That greatness came at a fearful cost.

Thus, rides into the sunset the Dark Knight of the Seattle Seahawks. I’ll always wear that #31 jersey with pride, and remember fondly the Legion of Boom in its truest form. The best defense of its era in the NFL, with Kam Chancellor at its heart.

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Another piece by Keegan Hall, requested by Kam and featuring the conclusion of his 90-yard, interception return for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers in the 2014 Playoffs. Keegan’s work is all drawn in pencil. (Pencil!) You should buy some. Seriously. I have two signed copies, one of the first one of Kam in this post and another of the Legion of Boom.

That time I was in the Civil War

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Antietam Creek rolls by gently in the rain. A scene of beauty, just yards from terrible fighting at Burnside’s Bridge in 1862 as Union troops forced a crossing under heavy Confederate fire on America’s Bloodiest Day. A visual symbol that hope and beauty endure.

I’ve been a Civil War-history nerd for as long as I could remember.

Nerd? Yes, a nerd.

I checked out related books so often from my elementary school library that a librarian once stopped me with one book to say I had checked it out too many times in a row. I pointed out no, those other entries were from earlier in the year. This was only the 2nd  in a row this time!

In third grade I gave a presentation on the Civil War. It was supposed to be a couple minutes. It turned out to be more like 20. And it was good enough my teacher took me up to the high school to give it to an honors American history class.

And the tales of my history nerdom go on, though uniquely focused on the Civil War. I was and am a history nerd, with the awards to prove it, but the Civil War was always my area of deepest interest, even expertise.

What was the source of that deep interest?

There are many potential reasons. I’ll give you one. And a vulnerable one at that.

Something inside me has been trying to explore something I had already lived.

I had the distinct feeling during my recent visit to Gettysburg that I had been there before this lifetime.

Am I talking about reincarnation?

Yes, maybe.

Why did I leave Seattle to attend college in Fredericksburg, VA…with its campus on a famous Civil War battlefield?

Why have I been most truly at home when living in Virginia and Louisiana, with a special love for warm Southern evenings?

Why when I have studied Civil War history and visited Civil War battlefields have I always been consistently and inexorably drawn to the Confederate experience?

It could be just chance.

But, as I’ve written before, I don’t believe in coincidences.

I’m not a resolute believer in reincarnation, including in all its Hindi forms. But, my evolving faith and spirituality includes acceptance of the reality that our world — as Einstein articulated — is made up of energy. And that energy can exist and be transformed in ways we as humans don’t fully understand.

Yet, I grew up in a faith that would slam the door shut brusquely on such ideas. It’s uncomfortable in much of Western society to espouse belief in such things. People that believe strongly in it are often viewed as kooks, loons, and perhaps unwell. We’re a society that historically has hastily rejected ideas that challenge our dominant (and comfortable) thinking, sometimes even in the face of evidence that might challenge that accepted paradigm.

But, sometimes paradigms break.

The Earth isn’t the center of the universe. Slavery is not ok. Women should have equal rights. One ethnic group isn’t superior to another. The Chicago Cubs can win the World Series. Shit, Donald Trump got elected President.

And maybe, it’s ok to embrace our inner kook sometimes.

Yes, I am a Civil War history nerd, in a big way. That’s the good side.

The bad side: if I did fight and die in the Civil War, I don’t believe I was on the side of righteousness. That draw to the Confederate side and affinity for things Southern means I most likely fought on the side who in the annals of military history is known for fighting admirably…on behalf of the very worst of causes. Slavery.

Admirably? Yes, based on the skill which Confederates fought on the battlefield, not because of the heinous cause for which they fought. Students of war know this. The audacity of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as well as the toughness of the Southern solider in the face of incredible odds are studied parts of military history (and yes, while some Union leaders and soldiers come in for praise too, it’s not in the same way).  For example, some World War II German military commanders have discussed in memoirs their study of the Civil War, in particular Confederate strategy and tactics, as part of the training that made them — with deep irony — also highly capable, famous soldiers, closely studied in military history…fighting for one of the most despicable causes in our modern human story. Nazism.

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The place where Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead fell, mortally wounded, moments after briefly piercing Union lines at the climax of Pickett’s Charge on the last day of Gettysburg. The marker looks West over rolling fields where thousands fell dead or wounded in the battle that marked the turning point of the Civil War.

Maybe all of that is why today, living in the heart of the South, I have developed a special, burning passion — even righteous anger — for the topic of reforming our criminal justice system. The goal: eradicate the latent racism and bigotry that still lurks in our society decades after the end of Jim Crow and some 150 years after a hellish, death-filled Civil War to resolve our country’s original failing. I have sins for which my soul aches to atone.

All of that isn’t very comfortable.

I could try to bury all that inside me. But, that would require me lying to myself.

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The Bloody Lane. A simple, sunken country road, turned into a blanket of dead and dying men, fallen in savage fighting at the Battle of Antietam.

You tell me though why I find the fields of Antietam so deeply haunting.

You tell me why I spontaneously almost burst into tears recently driving onto the Gettysburg battlefield.

You tell me why my heart physically aches with sorrow as I stand on those fields.

You tell me why the conjuring of very specific scenes of military conflict in my mind sends deep, reverberating chills up and down my spine until my hair stands on end.

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A memorial to the 1st Minnesota, ordered from this spot to launch a desperate, hopeless charge to buy time for Union lines to reform after a successful Confederate attack on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. 216 of the 262 men in the unit became casualties during the attack. The highest casualty rate of any Union regiment in the war. The Union line held.

Maybe you’ll just say I’m weird (…and I’m more than a little ok with that).

If there is one thing perhaps you take away from this tale though, whatever you think of the details, maybe it’s this: don’t be afraid to unburden your soul. To say what you think, especially in the face of facts, experiences, and gut instinct that conspire to point in one direction…even when much of society might not be comfortable with it.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in life is being your authentic self, having an impact, and being the positive force you were meant to be in the world matters way more than whatever society expects of you…or what you think society expects of you.

Maybe why that’s why I’m willing to broach the uncomfortable topic of reincarnation, and let you deeper into my soul, whose experience may have involved fighting for the most hideous of things.

Because we are both the good and bad inside of us. The question is what we do with that.

Can we recognize the good and the bad? Without recognizing both, the bad will serve as a drag on the good like a weight chained to your ankle.

Recognize the bad. Unburden your soul. Then go chase the good with everything you have. You will be happier, and the world will be better for it.

Trust that inner voice that has been calling to you, trust your gut

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Ariana Kukors and I rocking some yoga at the top of a LifeWise sponsored hike in 2014.

We spend too much time thinking about things and not enough time trusting our gut, and going with the flow. There are entire fields of science about such things, such as trusting your gut and being in flow state. Those are worth studying, but often as we apply it to our own lives it’s really about simplifying – not complicating – the thinking process to produce better results in our lives.

Here’s one tale about how trusting my gut worked for my professional life (and aligned to my belief there are no coincidences). Things happen for a reason, even if we don’t understand or appreciate it at the time.

You might be thinking: “Eric, why did you start a post about a professional story with a yoga pic on a hike?” That’s kinda the damn point; read on.

There are three key steps to going with the flow:

  1. Listen to your gut
  2. Be patient, let things happen
  3. Act, decisively

In 2013 I was working at Premera Blue Cross near Seattle, running the Corporate Communications team, and looking for a motivational speaker to break-up a joint, day-long offsite for my team and the Marketing Department. As that need lingered in the back of my head, some mindless Twitter scrolling led me to a tweet from Olympic swimmer and area native Ariana Kukors about appearing with former NBA Seattle Supersonic Slick Watts at a local sports award banquet.

Something clicked in my mind with the tweet, knowing a little of Ariana’s story of perseverance: missing the Olympics in 2008 by eight one hundredths of a second, becoming a World Champion and World-Record Holder in 2009, and making the Olympics in 2012 (summarized in a splendid ESPN column). Did Ariana do any motivational speaking?

I pinged her on Twitter to ask. The answer was yes, and we met for lunch to see if the opportunity was a good fit. It was a great conversation. I very quickly determined, yes, she’d be a good fit for the motivational speaker I wanted. And as we conversed more in that initial meeting another idea started percolating in my head: is Ariana a good fit for the emerging marketing campaign for Premera’s LifeWise brand?

At the time, health plans were preparing for implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and through a quirk of health insurance history in Washington state, Premera had a brand in the individual market with the freedom to be (very) different than the Blue Cross brand. The company was planning to differentiate the two in the new ACA-world, in part by pitching LifeWise to consumers interested in active lifestyles in the Pacific Northwest. Could Ariana, the homegrown Olympian, who was now telling me about her current health journey and passion, be a fit with LifeWise?

I let that thought sit in the back of my mind as we concluded a verbal agreement to have Ariana speak at the offsite meeting. We followed that with some prep to make sure her remarks would best fit the group and then got to the day.

I still had the “Ariana…LifeWise?” thought bouncing around my head as I prepared my introduction for her talk. I wasn’t doing anything with the thought other than acknowledging it, not shooting it down, and letting things unfold, including as she was a surprise guest, known only to one member of my team as our speaker before that day.

I introduced Ariana with a wind-up that included quoting from that ESPN column and showing this picture, revealing her emotional response at the 2012 Olympic Trials upon seeing she was going to the Games in London, giving a window into why Ariana had a story to tell, and to provide a deeply human feel to her tale.

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Ariana, moments after seeing she was going to the Olympics.

Then she killed that talk. It was emotional. It was motivational. It was about more than sport, it was about life.

She was swarmed after by attendees, including members of our Marketing team and our recently hired agency for LifeWise. Some people quickly started musing about the very idea lurking in my head of “Does Ariana have a role with us?”

The question wasn’t a one-day musing in the close wake of powerful public speaking, the conversations continued. Soon we reached a consensus among myself, key members of the Marketing team, and our outside agency that Ariana would be an outstanding addition to the budding experiment of our new LifeWise campaign.

Yet, there was no Marketing budget immediately available to fund the honorary “Director of Health Inspiration” role we foresaw for Ariana to be a public-face of LifeWise for the remaining months of 2013, during the peak of marketing before the ACA’s first open enrollment period.

What to do?

As the leader of the Corporate Communications team, I had some flexibility in my budget while the Marketing team was tapped, otherwise requiring a time-consuming, special corporate budget request in tight budget times. While those of us involved in crafting this project with Ariana believed mightily in it’s potential, the relevant Marketing leader who would need to make a special budget request was neither bold and decisive, nor visionary. Thus, there was no way a special request would be considered in time to add Ariana to the team in a timely manner to meet the business opportunity.

It wasn’t a tough call. I funded the experiment for the remainder of the year, believing it would prove itself and be funded in the Marketing budget in 2014.

On one hand, it would have been perfectly appropriate — and indeed, normal — in the corporate world for me to say, “That’s not my area of responsibility, they need to fund it, not me.” On the other hand, my gut was screaming: “This is the right thing to do for the business.”

So, I did it.

The result: the experiment paid off. Ariana became an integrated part of the LifeWise campaign in her Director of Health Inspiration role. She was a social media force, an online writer, a regular feature at event-based marketing, and eventually a staple in TV appearances for LifeWise.

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Ariana as Director of Health Inspiration, before a #FitMob event; free, LifeWise-branded opportunities to workout with professional trainers, yoga instructors, and the like.

Along the way, I found an outstanding friend, Ryan Hodgson, on the agency side of our Marketing team. Together, we recruited Ariana to join a team Ryan created to run a Tough Mudder race in October 2013, converting that group into a LifeWise-sponsored team.

We slayed that race.

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Our jubilant LifeWise team after crushing that Tough Mudder with vigor.

Returning to the idea of no coincidences, and Ariana’s TV appearances: the latter went so well our agency team eventually negotiated to have Ariana appear as a LifeWise sponsored special correspondent to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for Seattle’s NBC affiliate, KING 5.

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Ariana in Sochi.

Ariana’s powerful experience in at the Winter Games motivated her to attempt a comeback to competitive swimming, with an eye on the 2016 Olympics. She moved to southern California and teamed up with a renowned coach of international swimming stars, USC Swim Coach Dave Salo. Injuries ultimately halted Ariana’s comeback, but along the way of that journey she met her now husband and started professional relationships that led to time with Win Forever/Compete to Create (more on why I think that company is really damn special).

No coincidences. At all. In any of it.

As for me, I view this entire episode as one of my best professional moments, second at Premera only to this brutal day (though the LifeWise project was way more enjoyable!). It also helped get me promoted to Vice President at the age of 39, in part because I was creative in identifying a business need and successful in implementing that solution. Along the way, as I reflect on what I enjoyed about that experience, talking about that effort with LifeWise and Ariana internally at Premera was a lot of fun. Because I believed in it and it filled me with joy.

Joy, in one’s professional life? Yes, joy. Pure unadulterated joy.

Which gets me back to the three steps of making this happen.

  1. Listen to your gut. I didn’t squelch a potentially far-fetched idea when it screamed “pursue this!”
  2. Be patient, let things happen. I didn’t force things to happen. Some of it had to be driven by others. By following step #1, step #2 could manifest.
  3. Act, decisively. When it was truly on me to move the ball forward, I did, by committing to a major budget expenditure that the Department I led didn’t need to make, but I knew the company would be better for it.

Here’s the trick: following you gut is risky.

I was working in health insurance when I did this, a highly risk averse industry, not known for rewarding bold steps. At any point along the way, I could have easily chosen inaction rather than action.

Yet, when we start trusting our gut and going with the follow, it suddenly becomes even easier. You want to know what barriers I ran into during the story above?

None.

Many hurdles were possible. They never materialized. I don’t think that’s a coincidence either.

I think about that today as I’ve decided to take a leap and my follow my gut to make being a writer part of my professional portfolio, leading a more unconventional professional life than was the case for my relatively straight-laced career since college.

Is that scary?

Yes.

Is that risky?

Yes.

Is it what my gut is calling me to do?

Yes.

So, with a glass raised to this tale with Ariana, here I go.

Why did this man spend 41 years in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit?

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Herman Wallace in 2008. Credit: The Innocence Project/The Advocate.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  – Dylan Thomas 

You’d think rage would occupy the mind of Herman Wallace. He was held in solitary confinement for 41 years for a crime he didn’t commit. 41 years. Not just for an innocent error or a case of mistaken identity; 41 years in solitary confinement because the criminal justice system fucked him. Deliberately.

Herman Wallace didn’t rage at that travesty, at least not in a way many of us would consider rage. He was a model of measured restraint in irrepressibly fighting the injustice he faced before he passed away (you can here his voice talking about his experience here). But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rage. We should.

Allow me to take you on a journey. A journey about peeling back one of dark truths of our modern, representative democracy that we don’t like to talk about.

It’s a journey written especially for my white friends and readers, kicking open the door to some uncomfortable realities many of our lives have otherwise allowed us to avoid.

It’s also a tale written for my Republican and conservative friends, to call into question root beliefs around our criminal justice system, to allow for a long-overdue assessment of what criminal justice reform really means.

But, regardless of one’s race or political beliefs, this is a tale of a failure in our society’s criminal justice system we have allowed to linger for far, far too long.

The seed that could spawn eventual change in our country on this topic may well be the horrific case of Philando Castille. The black man shot and killed by a Minnesota cop during a traffic stop while complying with the officer and conducting himself entirely as he should have as a passenger legally carrying a firearm. Castille’s killer was acquitted in the clearest possible case where an officer should have been convicted of a crime for an unjust shooting. That incident along with others of police misconduct captured on cell phone video in recent months caused me and other traditionally conservative people to re-think some of our assumptions about the justice our country does or does not provide.

Living in New Orleans has since taken the seed of dismay for me and blossomed into a tree of righteous anger.

Anger?

Yes, anger.

I’ll tell you some reasons why.

A man was recently released from prison in Louisiana after 46 years after being wrongly convicted for rape.

Jones was found guilty in the Oct. 2, 1971, rape of a young Baton Rouge General Medical Center nurse who was abducted from the hospital parking lot. Another young woman was kidnapped Oct. 29, 1971, from the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical and raped. Both were abducted at gunpoint.

[Judge] Anderson ruled the state was obligated to turn over information about the second rape to Jones’ trial attorneys but failed to do so. He said “there is a reasonable probability that, had the information been disclosed to competent counsel, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

The judge added that the “strong similarities” between the two rapes are “almost too numerous to list.” He also stated that the nurse’s physical description of her attacker is “an almost identical match” to Arnold Ray O’Conner, who was convicted of armed robbery in a September 1973 home-invasion rape near Baton Rouge General.

Wilbert Jones spent 46 years of his life behind bars because of what can only politely be called the benign neglect of prosecutors in the case. A less charitable version is prosecutors deliberately chose to withhold exculpatory evidence so convincing a judge overturned the verdict once brought to his attention decades later. Neither option is acceptable given the foundational principle of our country’s justice system that we are innocent until proven guilty.

Stories like this are sadly not unheard of in today’s America, including as DNA testing reveals some old verdicts as errors of justice. In that vein, one might argue: “gee, these problems sure seem like they’re rooted in the past. We’ve evolved as a society a lot in the last several decades, including with technology. We’re past that now, right?”

Wrong.

The New Orleans prosecutor’s office is facing a federal lawsuit today because of the use of “fake subpoenas” to compel testimony from innocent witnesses:

Topped with the word “subpoena” and the seal of the district attorney in New Orleans, the documents carried an air of authority. They instructed people to appear before prosecutors “to testify to the truth,” and they warned that “failure to obey” the missive could lead to a fine and imprisonment.

But the personalized documents were never endorsed by any court. Instead, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit brought on Tuesday in New Orleans, the papers that were disguised as subpoenas were central to a sustained and fraudulent effort by local prosecutors to coerce witnesses.

The lawsuit, filed by seven plaintiffs, accused local prosecutors of menacing prospective witnesses with what were supposedly subpoenas. Sometimes, the lawsuit said, officials asked judges that people be jailed as material witnesses after they balked at the demands for private meetings with prosecutors.

The approach, the lawsuit said, intended “to create a culture of fear and intimidation that chills crime victims and witnesses from asserting their constitutional rights.” It added, “As a result of these policies, crime victims and witnesses in Orleans Parish know that if they exercise their right not to speak with an investigating prosecutor, they will face harassment, threats, arrest and jail.”

Innocent, prospective witnesses were then sent to jail for failing to comply with these  “subpoenas,” including the victim of domestic violence jailed for five days before her attacker eventually avoided jail time after his ultimate conviction. That’s not justice. Far, far from it.

To make matters worse, the prosecutor’s office doesn’t appear to be serious about responding to the lawsuit, let alone having a modern filing system for records:

During the hearing, Love and other judges questioned Vincent about why the [fake subpoena] records were not more easily accessible.

“There’s no database of all your pleadings?” Love asked Vincent.

“No ma’am,” Vincent said. Moreover, it costs the DA’s office more than $8 to access a closed file from where it’s kept in storage, he said. And any files that are scanned he said, are not word searchable.

While this rot exists today, it is the tale of Herman Wallace that speaks to me. Herman’s case is famous  in some social activist circles. He was one of the Angola 3, held in solitary confinement for 41 years…for a crime he didn’t commit.

Herman’s was finally set free, dying three days after his release, earning a story in the New York Times.

If the case of Philando Castile should gnaw at the heart of every American who believes in freedom, the case of Herman Wallace should haunt our dreams, raising serous questions about how far we have still to go to achieve they system of government and law our Constitution describes.

The Atlantic detailed some of the appalling facts of the errant conviction of Herman Wallace for the murder of a prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola:

  • Blood & fingerprints at the scene didn’t match the defendants
  • Each of the eyewitnesses claimed to be sole eye witness and none of their tales was consistent with the other
  • One “witness” later testified to being beaten during interrogation for the case
  • One “witness” was legally blind
  • One “witness” was schizophrenic
  • One was charged with another murder, using his testimony in the Wallace case to garner favor for leniency on that charge
  • Other inmates testified Wallace was not present at the murder
  • All 4 defendants, including Wallace, had the same counsel. One co-defendant flipped to the prosecution’s side after striking a deal with the warden of the prison during trial. Defense counsel was given a mere 30 minutes to prepare to cross-examine his former client
  • Exculpatory testimony and evidence was withheld from the defense
  • Wallace’s counsel failed to appeal the verdict after conviction

After that farce of a trial, triggered by an unconstitutional indictment that led to Wallace’s eventual release decades later, he and Albert Woodfox lived in solitary confinement…in perpetuity. The third member of the Angola 3, Robert King, eventually joined them in solitary for the same crime, even though he wasn’t even in Angola when the murder took place.

The uniting factor between Wallace, Woodfox, and King?

They were part of the Black Panthers, having joined the organization while incarcerated as part of protesting truly horrific and inhumane prison conditions.

Horrific and inhumane?

Yes, and that’s being s polite.

Angola was a Third World shit hole meets Jim Crow; known infamously as the “bloodiest prison in America” for its history of prisoner violence and rape:

The prison’s roots go back to 1880, when a former Confederate major purchased a plantation called Angola, so named for the country where the region’s slaves came from. He began storing prisoners in the former slave quarters. After stories of brutality leaked from its walls, the state took control of the prison. Unfortunately, conditions didn’t improve.

In 1943, a former prisoner penned in an exposing series of articles about various abuses at Angola, including this one about a warden who’d roam with a three-foot leather strip to lash the inmates. “[He] raised it over his head, with both hands, and brought it down with a sharp pop like a pistol shot on the naked man’s back. One … two … three … twenty; the count goes beyond thirty … the man moans, pleads for mercy, calls on God. The captain tells him: ‘You bettah call on someone closer to you—someone who kin help you!’”

Conditions got so bad in the 1950s that 31 inmates sliced their Achilles tendons to bring attention to their poor treatment. In the following decades, sexual slavery was common place and gun-welding prisoners patrolled as guards called “khaki-backs.” In the early ‘70s, an average of 12 prisoners were stabbed to death each year.

Set aside that heinous, nauseous level of “you might be ‘free’ but we’re still going to keep you down, boy” racism that allows such a plantation-as-prison construct, and consider 31 inmates reached the point they believed slicing their own Achilles tendons was better than the status quo!

I’d join the Black Panthers too in their shoes.

Here’s the key point though, because the Black Panthers had their own controversial history: regardless of any concern people may have about the Black Panthers, part of the point of the United States is we’re not supposed to imprison people for political beliefs. We fought a war against that kind of tyranny for God’s sake.

Except we didn’t root all that tyranny out of our flawed humanity. The wages of our nation’s original sin of slavery are not yet behind us.

Wallace’s attorney argued clearly in that NY Times obituary piece:

George Kendall, who was a lawyer for Mr. Wallace and who confirmed the death, said in an interview that his client’s original conviction was “a travesty” based on shoddy evidence, and that the men had been kept in solitary confinement because they had been members of the Black Panthers, the black nationalist group. Officials worried “that they would organize the prison,” he said.

What else explains the lengths at which prison officials went to beat, badger, and bribe other convicts into testifying against Wallace and Woodfox? What else explains holding men in solitary confinement for 41 years?

Wallace said as much:

 [Angola] warden Burl Cain offered to release Woodfox and Wallace back into the general population if they renounced their political views and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.

Uh…

What. The. Fuck?

I see we leaped to limiting both political and religious freedom as tools of the state here.

Importantly, Cain confirmed the motivation:

In a 2008 deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of [Angola prison guard] Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “Okay, I would still keep him in CCR [solitary confinement]…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them.”

It’s tough to speculate on what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would think of a system holding people in solitary confinement as political prisoners in the 21st century, but I’d wager they wouldn’t be amused. Hamilton in particular would likely be enraged.

Yet, that’s what the Angola 3 were: political prisoners.

The scurrilous Cain was warden of Angola from 1995 to 2015, resigning after a series of shady deals and shenanigans with use of inmate labor. Cain’s behavior in our modern era belies the excuse we might comfort ourselves with that deplorable, racist behavior is a vestige of the past and we can easily presume it’s behind us.

On that score, let’s return to the story of Herman Wallace. He was belatedly diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer while incarcerated; the disease by then being its own death sentence. Yet, Louisiana rejected requests for compassionate release. As if the bed-ridden, dying Wallace was somehow a danger to society at that point.

Regardless, a federal judge ultimately over-turned Wallace’s indictment for murder and ordered him released. Deplorably, Louisiana officials remained obstinate:

For a while Tuesday evening, it looked as though Wallace wouldn’t be released. First, supporters said Elayn Hunt Warden Howard Prince left to eat dinner, claiming he couldn’t allow Wallace’s release because he’d already left the grounds. But a federal judge ordered him back and after another hour of wrangling, Wallace emerged from the gates of the prison in the back of an ambulance.

Indeed, the federal judge had to threaten the state prison system with contempt and order Wallace released that evening before he was ultimately freed and transported via ambulance to his brief life after prison.

Everything about the conduct of multiple officials in disparate parts of the criminal justice system in the handling of the case of Herman Wallace imply, often not very subtly, that they were more interested in sticking it to a black man with uncomfortable political beliefs than any sort of real justice.

As icing on that cruel, bitter cake, they re-indicted Wallace on his death bed:

Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Wallace had been transported into hospice care at Wennerstrom’s home, a newly-convened grand jury in West Feliciana re-indicted Wallace on the murder charge.

West Feliciana District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla confirmed the reindictment Friday morning, saying the grand jury featured six women and at least one black member, an older man roughly Wallace’s age.

D’Aquilla said no court date would have been set until December, long after friends and family expected Wallace to live. But D’Aquilla denied the move was political, saying only “we just had concerns about compassion issues.”

D’Aquilla maintained his stance that Wallace was guilty of Miller’s murder, however, saying the federal judge only overturned the grand jury indictment and not his 1974 conviction.

“Compassion”?

I think someone misspelled “vindictive assholes.” Who spends public resources re-indicting someone on their death bed for an alleged crime 40 years ago after a federal judge orders said person’s release?

As you ponder what might motivate such behavior, consider what Wallace’s fellow member of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox experienced: daily strip searches and body cavity inspections. Treatment so ludicrous it was the source of litigation:

Jerry Goodwin, the warden at David Wade Correctional Center, where Woodfox is imprisoned, testified to U.S. District Court Judge James J. Brady that it is the prison’s policy to perform “visual body cavity searches” every time a maximum security inmate enters or leaves his tier.

Sheridan England, a member of Woodfox’s legal team, asked Goodwin why his client should undergo the searches, since he remains shackled and under constant watch by at least two guards during his time off the tier.

Woodfox’s was eventually freed after copping a deal with prosecutors last year to cease their ongoing appeals after the third time federal courts overturned his conviction. Woodfox is free today and recently the subject of a National Geographic special with Morgan Freeman.

Meanwhile, lest we think the dated mistreatment of now old and dead men are behind us, the insanity at Angola continues today. A new death row cell block was opened with completely inadequate cooling for the oppressive, muggy heat of Louisiana’s summers, creating indoor heat indexes so brtual and dangerous as to warrant litigation of over cruel and unusual punishment.

That was in 2013. Just last year the federal judge overseeing the case expressed exasperation with the failure of Louisiana officials to address the problem, including spending more on legal fees fighting the case than the estimated cost of adding sufficient cooling solutions to the cell block in question.

And Angola is not alone in Louisiana:

  • The Orleans Parish Prison was placed under a federal consent decree in 2013 to implement “widespread reforms” in “a jail complex notorious for inmate violence, frequent escapes, poor mental health care and inmate deaths”
  • Neighboring St. Tammany Parrish faced its own federal consent decree in 2012:

About 15 months after its launch, a federal investigation into conditions at the St. Tammany Parish jail found that the complex did not provide adequate mental health care or suicide prevention measures to its prisoners

  • In 2014, a man on death row was released after the vacating of a murder conviction of which he was innocent. He spent 30 years in prison for the erroneous conviction
  • And just this year, a man was released after spending nearly eight years in jail for a non-violent criminal charge that never went to trial:

When Kevin Smith was jailed on a drug charge in New Orleans in 2010, Blockbuster was still renting DVDs and President Barack Obama was still trying to pass his signature health care bill.

Smith’s case never went to a jury. On Monday, 2,832 days after he was locked up, Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier ordered Smith’s release, bowing to an appeals court ruling that prosecutors had violated his right to a speedy trial.

Un-fucking-believable.

Eight years in prison awaiting trial. In today’s America.

Here’s a fact that should trouble the hell out of every American who believes in a fair justice system. A fact I haven’t spent much time on in the overall scheme of this post thus far: every example I’ve cited involves a black man.

Black men, denied justice in the Deep South…and across our country.

Black men convicted of rape they didn’t commit.

Black men convicted of murder they didn’t commit.

Black men shot to death during a traffic stop while complying with a police officer’s commands.

Black men held in solitary confinement for decades.

Black men punished in prison for decades simply for their political beliefs.

To paraphrase the stunning closing argument by “Jake Brigance” (played by Matthew McConaughey) in a Time to Kill:

Can you picture those black men?

Can you picture them spending 23 hours a day in a 6×9 cell for decades for crimes they didn’t commit?

Can you picture them bleeding to death in the passenger seat of a car on the side of the road?

Can you picture it?

Now imagine they’re white.

What would you do then?

What everyone can do to help with mental health

mag_holleran

Suicide victim Madison Holleran. Image credit: ESPN.

Sometimes the best thing you can read or watch is something that jars you to your core.

Not the thing that makes you comfortable or happy, but a tale that leaves you speechless.

Those are the stories that make you think. That motivate you to action. And change your perspective.

I read one recently: “Split Image,” a recounting about the death by suicide of a University of Pennsylvania track athlete. A key focus of the deeply-reported story was the stark dichotomy between the Madison Holleran’s social media and her inner turmoil. That’s important, but something else hit me hard in the telling: the seeming lack of a place or person where Madison could bare her soul.

This was a young woman struggling with a hidden problem: a profound dichotomy between the life trajectory she had carved out for herself as a successful student and athlete in high school versus the severe absence of happiness she found in living the fruits of that trajectory in college. Add in any level of proclivity for mental illness and that’s a dangerous cocktail.

Yet, you would never know it by looking at her, as is so often the case with mental illness.

There is a deeper issue here than the long struggle to raise awareness of mental health issues and eliminate the societal stigma associated with talking it, let alone confessing one’s own challenges in that area.

Here’s why:

Madison was beautiful, talented, successful — very nearly the epitome of what every young girl is supposed to hope she becomes. But she was also a perfectionist who struggled when she performed poorly. She was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.

She started seeing a therapist during Thanksgiving break [before she committed suicide the following January] and would continue seeing the woman through winter break. The closest Madison came to a diagnosis was “battling anxiety.”

Everyone now agrees that Madison was depressed, though she had never previously exhibited symptoms. (Depression exists on [her father] Jim’s side of the family.) Something had changed with her brain chemistry. She was not seeing the world in the same way she had before. She had lost weight too, had become so thin as to appear sick.

The day before Madison returned to Penn for spring semester, she had a session with her therapist that Jim also attended. She admitted to having suicidal thoughts. “If you have suicidal thoughts, don’t act them out,” her doctor said. “Either call me or call someone in your family.”

Madison nodded.

As a family, they had never talked about suicide. Jim never considered it a real possibility — just the dramatic ending to someone else’s story. As Carli explains: “Other people battle depression for years. With Madison, it feels like one day she was happy, the next she was sad and the day after she was gone.”

Jim feared that speaking about suicide would make its likelihood greater. He didn’t raise the subject as he and Madison drove back to Philadelphia.

Mental illness is scary. It can be down right terrifying. It isn’t easy to understand. And that’s before you factor in the complex, multi-layer filter of having a loved-one battle such demons.

I’ve had family members battle mental illness. There are few things that will leave you feeling more helpless than attempting wrapping you arms around what they’re feeling.

Speaking about such struggles out loud is scary and intimidating as hell.

It’s no wonder a teen in a situation like Madison felt she didn’t have someone to turn to when her thoughts spiraled to a terrible place.

Does she turn to her parents, who were no doubt reveling in her “success” as a student-athlete?

Does she turn to fellow students, where the fear of rejection from peers could be overwhelming?

Does she turn to some other important figure in her life such as a current or former coach, teacher, or extended family member?

Who knows. Each case is different for the sufferer of mental illness even feeling like there’s a viable choice in any of those options.

That’s what jars me. Thinking about giving people opportunities to bare their soul. To have an option besides leaping off a nine-story parking garage to their death.

As uncomfortable as it is, a clear takeaway of Madison’s story is she didn’t feel comfortable baring her darkest thoughts to her family. Does that mean her family failed her? Probably not, but they likely could have made  different choices…which virtually every family suffering through such an event could find in their own honest hindsight.

Indeed, family can be important. But, even more important are those spaces outside the family  where someone feels willing to take the risk of sharing some of their demons.

Even the greatest achievers in our society struggle with this. Sometimes mightily.

Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest Olympian in history, landed his ass in rehab in 2014 for a host of issues, including wishing his life was over, prior to his swan song, 2016 Olympic games:

 “My brother was like a scared little boy on that trip [to rehab],” says [Michael’s sister] Hilary. Once there, the then 29-year-old hero of three Olympic Games was left alone, stripped of the personality that had publicly defined him. “Hug-hug, kiss-kiss, turn in my phone and go to my room,” says Phelps, “It’s probably the most afraid I’ve ever felt in my life.”

About five days into his stay, Phelps says, he began to loosen his resistance…“I wound up uncovering a lot of things about myself that I probably knew, but I didn’t want to approach,” he says. “One of them was that for a long time, I saw myself as the athlete that I was, but not as a human being. I would be in sessions with complete strangers who know exactly who I am, but they don’t respect me for things I’ve done, but instead for who I am as a human being. I found myself feeling happier and happier. And in my group, we formed a family. We all wanted to see each other succeed. It was a new experience for me. It was tough. But it was great.”

Michael Phelps. Olympic legend.

Michael Phelps. Fucked up dude.

That’s why talking about mental health is important. Even the great and resource-rich among us don’t know where to turn with these issues. It took Phelps landing in rehab for 45 days to start sorting his shit out.

Now, he’s appearing in “Angst,” a film on the often unpleasant, let’s-kick-this-under-the-carpet-while-not-making-eye-contact issue of anxiety and depression. In doing so, Phelps is explicitly setting permission for others to talk about it.

Permission is essential. Permission to be vulnerable. Permission to be able to say out loud to another human being, “I’m not ok.”

Author and athlete Rich Roll set a standard for vulnerability in Finding Ultra, and continues it to this day on his podcast, which recently featured the tear-inducing tale of the otherwise Tony Robbins-like Lewis Howes, describing coming to terms as an adult with being raped in a bathroom at five years old. It’s a must-listen episode, all related to Lewis’ new book about the many emotions men often avoid dealing with and discussing, The Mask of Masculinity.

But.

Books and podcasts are one thing. Intentionally setting permission for others in your life is essential.

There were times in my life where I was able to create those kind of spaces, especially as an assistant swim coach in college and as a manager of people in a large company. At various points I ended up having some unexpected and very serious conversations with people that had less to do with college athletics or work. They had to do with life.

A swimmer ready to quit the sport, on the spot, during a Christmas-break training trip in Florida. Another swimmer ready to throw in the towel because they weren’t enjoying the sport anymore. A co-worker breaking town in tears in my cubicle. A professional acquaintance getting raw about a public controversy that made future employment a challenge.

In almost every case, I don’t know exactly where that person is today. I don’t know what impact those conversations had over time. What I do know is they were totally outside the guardrails of what might be typically expected in each of those environments.

Here’s why I think they happened: something about each case included an environment where the person knew, or could take the risk that, there would be no judgement in saying something uncomfortable.

Recently I had a friend get real about depression and suicide-related thoughts. That’s heavy. I’m glad somewhere, probably without meaning to, something in how we talked set that permission.

None of us can solve the problems of all the Madison Holleran’s of the world. Nor should we be the solution, that’s for each person to work through, preferably with the support of mental health professionals. Yet, we can create environments where our humanity is so visible and evident that those in pain become willing say something out loud that might not otherwise dare to utter. Because from that moment of confession comes hope for change and improvement.

I say that because I’ve had to stare down that confession. To set up an appointment with my primary care doctor to say, “I think I’m showing signs of depression.” To end up seeing a psychiatrist and later a counselor as my treatment progressed, because yes, I was clinically depressed.

As much as professional treatment helped address a number of things and got me on a trajectory to be given a clean bill of health, it would have been a lot better to have been able to talk more openly about those issues before I was diagnosed.

To be fair, I had a few, friends with whom I shared some of the key issues impacting my depression, but I hesitated to share the story in full. I would do that differently now.

That’s because I know deep down inside after emerging from the other side of my mental health taking a downward turn that talking to others is important. Those that are still on the far side of that challenge need more spaces where they can feel safe to say utter words like:

  • “Help.”
  • “This isn’t right.”
  • “I’m not ok.”
  • “Here’s what really eating at me.”

Do it.

Set permission.

Set the example by being vulnerable yourself.

Listen.

Make clear you give a damn.

Maybe just look someone in the eye and genuinely ask how they’re doing.

I’d rather do any of those things than learn someone in my life reached the point where leaping nine stories to their death was a better option.

Why I Tough Mudder

Eric and Ryan

My great friend, Ryan Hodgson, and I after finishing our 2nd Tough Mudder together.

 

You are free to think thoughts of worry or joy, and whatever you use will attract the same kind back to you. Worry attract worry. Joy attracts joy.  – Rhonda Byrne

 

This weekend I’m going to do one of my favorite things: run a Tough Mudder. This one, outside of Charlotte, NC, will be my sixth, including three this year. Despite the challenges of the last several months,  I’ve made it a priority to do things that fill me with joy, including running Tough Mudders and seeing old friends.

There’s something incredibly valuable in chasing joy. When you find it, that joy ricocheting through your heart multiples to other areas of your life. It puts you in a better energetic state and attracts better things to you. For all the hurdles I’ve confronted in recent months, experiencing old friends and being in the Tough Mudder community has been one of the best things for me. And that joy is slowly multiplying.

Perhaps you’re saying: wait, Eric, Tough Mudder is a 10-12 mile mud run filled with 20 or so special-forces inspired obstacles. What does that have to do with community?

Everything.

The thrill of doing a Tough Mudder isn’t merely the physical challenge, though that is splendid and rewarding. The true joy of doing it is being part of a community of great people.

Don’t believe me? Watch this from Tough Mudder Philly in May of this year (where me and my buddy Tim make an appearance in our red shirts during an emotional video):

One of my favorite moments of every Tough Mudder race is the pre-start pep talk, as each starting wave receives a delightfully rousing encouragement – along with some basic event instruction – before being unleashed on the course. Here’s an example:

Tough Mudder isn’t a race, it’s an ethos.

Don’t just challenge yourself, sometimes you need to do things that scare you. Because that’s how you grow. And while you’re growing, lend someone else a hand so you grow together.

Don’t just race the Tough Mudder course, be a teammate. To everyone. Except the first wave of competitive racers looking for their qualification for World’s Toughest Mudder, no one’s time is recorded. The event is about challenging yourself, finishing, and helping fellow Mudders, because at some point, everyone will need help with an obstacle.

Witness:

At every Tough Mudder,  I and my various teammates spend time helping fellow Mudders at many obstacles. Some of the regulars requiring a hand are Mount Everest 2.0, Pyramid Scheme, and Mud Mile 2.0  This is what Tough Mudder means. Not how fast you are, not how strong you are, but how you help your fellow Mudders challenge themselves and finish that beast.

And beast it is.

Forget your 5k or half marathon pace…or however you run. Tough Mudder typically means run for a half mile, or a mile, maybe even 2. Encounter an obstacle. Maybe wait in line at said obstacle. Pound through it. Repeat. Over, and over, and over.

Depending on the course, how crowded it is, and the pace you hold, you’ll likely be out there 3-4 hours once you factor in stations to rehydrate, refuel, and use a muddy as hell porta-potty.

Here’s the deal: as much fun is the course is, Tough Mudder is about challenging yourself to do something that’s scary. There is an obstacle that scares almost everyone. Pick your poison: Funky Monkey the Revolution, King of the Swingers, or Kong.

Can you take down that which you fear? I conquered Funky Monkey the Revolution and Stage 5 Clinger for the first time each outside of Philly this May. The feeling was glorious. And that’s what Mudders stare down in their own way each time they start the course.

To conquer a Tough Mudder for your first time? It’s phenomenal. My own in 2013 was one of the best days of my life.

2013 Tough Mudder team

Me with the rest of the “Pain Killer” team sponsored by LifeWise Health Plan of Washington in 2013. A jubilant day. We slaughtered that course.

One of the best days of your life? God damn straight it was.

Mine was the culmination of taking on a random invitation from a friend (Ryan, pictured at the top of the post) to challenge myself. That started a journey which included me getting back in shape, losing forty pounds (!), and eventually going vegan. My life was some tough shit when I started Tough Mudder training. By the time that Tough Mudder was done, my life was dramatically better.

Granted, life has not been without significant troubles since (see recent challenges), but I owe more to Tough Mudder playing a role in changing the long-term trajectory of my life than I can put in words.

Perhaps now you can see why Tough Mudder matters to me.

This Tough Mudder will be with the smallest team with which I’ve tackled a race. Just me and my good friend Tim.

2017 Tough Mudder Philly

My crew from Tough Mudder Philly, with my red-headed friend, Tim, in the middle with me.

What’s going to happen? Hell if I know. But, we’ll challenge ourselves. Help others. And savor every moment as we give that course in Charlotte our all.

I’m looking forward to the joy at the end of that course. Because no matter the physical challenge and pain involved, joy it will be.