Get out of line and into life

It's time to discover and do what you were put on this earth to accomplish.


Many of us are in a career assembly line that’s producing unremarkable results.

We know it, but it’s too hard to step away from the machine because the widgets keep rolling out.

We long to use our potential and passion, but the risks seem too high. We can’t afford to be idealistic dreamers. Or can we?

Watching an interview, I was freshly motivated by Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and a key investor in Facebook.

He earned a prestigious law degree, went to work for a New York law firm and then a Big Apple bank. But he hit the brakes and did a u-turn. Why walk away from pre-programmed success?


“But I had a quarter-life crisis where it made sense to do something with your life where, if you didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen,” he said. “That’s versus these tracked careers where if you didn’t do it there are a hundred other people who will take your place.”

At his law firm, about 80 new attorneys would join the ranks each year. After working feverishly for nearly a decade, a handful might get the opportunity to become a partner. But even then, the prospect of making a significant impact was a gamble at best.

“What’s amazing about these top institutions … is that from the outside everyone wants to get in,” he said. “But on the inside it’s very constrictive. It ends up involving a ferocious competition for what I think are relatively small stakes.”

The impact on those who scrape and claw to get up the ladder? “It (zeal) gradually gets rung out of them.”


Thiel, instead, took a gamble and a contrarian path. He didn’t want to occupy the chair that 99 others were waiting to move into.

The result: “It’s been a wild 25 years.”

Thiel reminds me of my friend Kaye Carter, who left a prestigious career in medicine and law to concentrate full time on writing a Christian book and encouraging people with the insights she has discovered. She, too, gave up her chair. And I’m glad she did.

Each of us has a unique contribution to make, not just in our paid vocation, but in life. It may be as a volunteer, a neighbor, an elected official or a parent. In order to make an impact, there will be risks to take and fears and adversity to overcome. 

But, as Seth Godin points out, the cost of failure is usually quite low – much lower than our self-preservation instincts tell us. Do your homework, seek a little advice, roll the dice and sample the risk. Don’t give up just because the going gets tough or feels wrong.

This could be the beginning of your “wild 25 years.” 

The world needs you. You're not like everybody else. Don’t let us down.

P.S. If you need a little musical inspiration, here is The Kinks classic, "I'm Not Like Everybody Else."




Let's go on a tear

The power of words within us can inspire, transform and topple. Let them out.


Peter Robinson didn't know a phrase he jotted in 1987 would change the world.

Four words conceived by the young speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan went on to inspire freedom-starved people behind the Iron Curtain, helping to topple it.

Robinson wrote the famous challenge issued by Reagan, in Berlin, to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall!”

By 1989, the wall that had separated the communist world from free Germany was gone.

Reagan in Berlin, 1987: "Tear down this wall!"

Reagan in Berlin, 1987: "Tear down this wall!"


Of course it took more than a speech to effect monumental change. But we know those four words mattered. Gary Kasparov, the former Russian world chess champion and a democratic activist, said Reagan's words inspired those struggling for freedom inside the Soviet empire.

“It had a profound psychological effect on the people on the other side of the wall,” he said. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was not inevitable.”  (See the interview below.)

Kasparov pointed out that two other U.S. presidents made powerful four-word statements that also gave courage to the oppressed:

  • In 1963, John F. Kennedy told a cheering Berlin audience “Ich bin ein Berliner” – “I am a Berliner” – expressing American solidarity with West Germans in the face of the Soviet threat.
  • Harry Truman committed to the 1948 Berlin airlift when the Soviets tried to isolate the city from the West: “We shall stay – period.”

Four words echoing in history. Changing its course.

Kennedy in Berlin, 1963: "I am a Berliner."

Kennedy in Berlin, 1963: "I am a Berliner."


This is inspiring for those of us who communicate for a living. We're in the word-crafting business. If we do our job right, we can help businesses succeed, noble causes thrive and people of character to be elected. 

Dare we say it? We can change the world. Or at least our small part of it.

But perhaps more important are the words we share with those in our lives. We should start with those closest to us: our spouse, children, siblings and parents. What expressions of kindness and appreciation have we held back?

And what about those who labor invisibly and unnoticed in our lives? The custodian. The receptionist. The cashier. Who sincerely thanks them?

When was the last time you sent a hand-written note that had the sole goal of encouraging someone?


Sound daunting? Maybe it should. If it were easy to communicate life-changing truths in four words – or in any number of words for that matter – everyone would do it.

It was a challenge for Robinson, too. Conflicting accounts obscure the record, but the words “tear down this wall” were nearly stricken from the speech. Depending on who recounts the story, the objection came from Washington aides, State Department aides or Reagan himself. Or all of them.

Reagan was ultimately convinced of the difference the words could make, and responded to an objection with, “I'm the president aren't I?”

“[Reagan] could visualize a world without a Soviet Union,” Robinson said. “So he understood that if he was going to stand at that wall, he was going to call for it to be torn down.”

Overcome the resistance. State the words that will bring change. Who knows what wall you may tear down?



It's time to raise your voice

Roy Harryman cpr blog raise your voice

Live dangerously by being your authentic self.


Beyond the constant noise and distraction of life there's a faint sound trying to cut through.

It's easy to ignore it, to suppress it, to say it's not practical. Not realistic.

Maybe when you retire or things aren't quite as economically risky.

What is this whisper? 

It's your original voice. That voice is your unique style. Your particular MO. The quirkiness of your personality. Your sense of humor, however subtle it may be.

Somewhere along the line, you decided to bottle it up.

Why would we suppress such a beautiful thing? Because standing out is dangerous.

Your original voice makes itself known in just about everything: your work, parenting, hobbies, friendships and projects of personal passion. There really is no one like you. 

If we settle for a vanilla, don't-rock-the-boat life, no one will get upset. We won't feel stupid. We won't fail.

But here's the problem with not raising your voice: You're not being authentically you. The gift you have to give to the world is wrapped up tightly and shoved in the closet for fear that someone won't like it. And of course, no one will ever receive it.

No one ever did anything great predicated on a strategy that “everyone will like it.” Run for president, and no matter what, 39 percent of the folks won't vote for you (that's the percentage Barry Goldwater got against LBJ in 1964).

Wow! Imagine losing 4 of 10 customers. That would feel devastating. But Lyndon B. Johnson achieved the biggest electoral blowout of all time with 61 percent of the vote that year.

It's the way cult bands survive and thrive. They may not get radio play, but they've got a core of rabid fans who anxiously await every release. Bands such as King Crimson. Never heard of them?

Their music brings great joy to a select few but doesn't do much for the vast majority. In fact, a member of that band, Trey Gunn, inspired this post with his talk on “Original Voice” (warning: language occasionally veers into PG13 mode).

Better to know you brought great joy to a few pursuing your passion than in settling for a pile of cash making jingles about waffles (unless your passionate about waffle jingles – then go for it).

What's more memorable and impactful? A cover version or an original?

Be yourself. Be distinctive. Ignore everyone else. Make a difference.

Is there any other way?


Want a grand brand? Then deliver the goods.

A logo by Picasso can't cover over service that stinks.


Branding is often equated with logos and taglines. 

And of course, those are important parts of any brand, whether it’s a business or non-profit.

As Clifton Alexander of Reactor Design has shared, the visuals (outside) need to reflect the excellence of the overall organization.

However, in my years in marketing I have seen an unhealthy obsession with logos, taglines and vision statements. Hours can be spent agonizing over colors, commas and typography when the real battle for the brand is being lost daily.

Merriam-Webster defines a brand as “a characteristic or distinctive kind.” That’s what every organization hopes for: to be set apart. They want to be the Apple of their industry or community.

But when it comes to winning brands, customer experience trumps graphic design every time. I don’t care how many times the logo of my ISP or cable company has been redesigned. The service is horrible. The experience is almost universally awful.

That brings me to an incredible “brand” experience I’ve had. And that is with my allergist, Dr. Michael Loren, in Lee’s Summit.

I don’t know if Dr. Loren has a logo. And I don’t care. From my very first visit a few years ago, he’s gone out of his way to try and combat my peculiar brand of allergy. He’s taken it seriously, almost as a challenge.

However, I’m no lab rat. Dr. Loren genuinely cares. He listens, contemplates, makes
observations and asks insightful questions. And although he’s prompt, he never appears rushed. Once I got a follow-up call from him on a Friday night from his cell phone. I was stunned.

The “brand” extends to the entire office. Every single staff member has been outgoing, gracious and compassionate. I recently switched family doctors and, when updating my records, couldn’t remember the new guy’s name. The office administrator played “20 Questions” with me until we isolated the building and office where he might be located. Then we nailed it by process of elimination.

But wait: There’s more!

I don’t know if this is an annual event, but Dr. Loren has taken the entire staff on a vacation. The “brand” doesn’t just extend to patients, but to his employees as well.

So, if you need a new logo, by all means get one. But if you’re business is mired in dysfunction and customers are fleeing, fix what’s under the hood before worrying about a new paint job.

And if you’ve got allergies, you know where to go.

There are no hacks, only hackers

Our shortcuts leave us short-circuited.


There are many definitions of the noun "hack," but a contemporary meaning has sprung to the top of our vocabulary.
Although this definition does not yet appear in Merriam-Webster's, the concept of a "hack" as a shortcut or easy way around difficulty is popular. Wikipedia says, "Life hacking refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life."
While there may be a few tips and tricks that are worth employing, the ugly fact is that there are no hacks for things that matter. This unfortunate truth applies to work, relationships, health ... you name it.
Let's start with health. I remember walking past the pharmacy a few years ago and passing a product called "Exercise in a Bottle." Does more need to be said?
Friendships, business relationships and romances are built on sustained trust. There simply is no shortcut. Our true intentions and character are exposed over the long haul.
As I help clients with marketing communications, this concept of hacking comes up often: "Someone wants to sell me a million e-mail addresses. Isn't that great!" 
This is also true of the sometimes arcane topic of SEO (search engine optimization). Many people are looking for "hacks," tips and tricks to fool Google into finding their website. This doesn't work. It may do the opposite.
Google wants a long-term relationship with your website. It wants to know that you provide consistent, valued content. That you are not a fly-by-night scam. It wants the same things your friends and family want from you: trust, dependability, reliability.
Although there are no real hacks, there are an abundance of hackers. Beware! These are the buffoons who ruin each form of media as soon as it comes on the scene: spam e-mailers, Facebook product bombardiers and agencies that create fake Twitter accounts to inflate social media influence.
To the client, these tactics are like saccharine-sweetened soda. It effervesces on the way down, but the aftertaste is bitter and empty.
If you want to improve your health, your relationships and your business, there simply are no hacks. You have to work at it, day in and day out. Behind the scenes. When no one's watching.
Malcom Gladwell made a splash when he wrote that the best of the best spent 10,000 hours practicing before they broke through.
Give up the quest for hacks. Roll up your sleeves and start logging your 10,000.
The best is yet to come.

Choose excellence over perfection


Do you have the ability to work in an “error-free environment”?

Believe it or not, that was a qualification in a job ad I saw a few years ago. Someone in that “error-free environment” was delusional about his ability to work without making mistakes.

And that’s the difference between excellence and perfection. Properly understood, perfectionism is not something to aspire to. Why? Because it is not attainable. We only have so much time and energy, and we cannot fully invest ourselves in every endeavor. We must be selective.

We only have the ability to go all out on a few things. If we relentlessly obsess about our job, then our health and family life have a good chance of being destroyed.

Even at work, we must prioritize. If we are a perfectionist about Project A, then Projects B, C, D and E will not receive as much attention. We cannot bring equal energy and attention to bear upon every single thing we do. And we shouldn’t. Every task is not of equal value to us, our boss or our customers.

In addition, life continually presses upon us with tensions that are not easily resolved. A few years ago I found a powerful illustration of time and priority management: the pentathlon. It features these eclectic events:

  • Pistol shooting
  • Fencing
  • Long-distance running
  • Equestrian show jumping
  • Swimming

If pentathletes develop amazing marksmanship skills, but neglect swimming, they can’t win. They may run an amazing 3200m, but if they can’t fence, they’ll lose.

This is an excellent metaphor for life with its mix of physical, spiritual, relational and mental demands. Neglect our health and we’ll lose our ability to do our job. Neglect our relationships and we’ll lose motivation to do our job. Neglect our jobs and we’ll lose our income and an opportunity to do much good. All of these things need our attention, all the time. We can’t focus on one to the exclusion of others without serious loss.

This is not an excuse for sloppiness. Ironically, perfectionists can be erratic and sloppy because they are not able to balance competing time demands. Their obsession on one task leads to the neglect of others. I know because I’m a recovering perfectionist. Elizabeth Grace Saunders sheds light on this:

“Saying something is complete doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved upon or elaborated in the future. It just means that I can submit it and move on to other work.”

Seth Godin has pointed out that “Saturday Night Live” can only be as good as it’s going to be by Saturday. A script writer may be able to add some zing to a skit by staying up all night and turning it in on Sunday. But that’s too late. Steve Jobs said the same thing in a different way: “Real artists ship.” In other words, they meet deadlines.

We may think, “I could have done better.” Well, that may be true. But at what price? To do better at Task A means to do worse at Task B. Is that OK? Tradeoffs must be made and we have to be honest about that.

Excellence is doing the very best we can with the time and resources we have, then being open to learn how we can improve in the future.

Are you ready to seek excellence? Or are you hung up on perfection?

Just say no to stock photography

Who knew that all customer service reps moonlighted as models?

Who knew that all customer service reps moonlighted as models?


Wired magazine just published an insightful piece on stock photography. The bottom line: Canned photos pretty much stink. Enter search query, prepare for a jackpot of stereotypes and saccharine.

You may or may not be in a position that requires you to purchase, curate or use stock art. But, if you are even mildly observant, you can spot it a mile away.

The problem? These pictures are invariably populated by perfect people with glistening teeth, sanitized kids and an ever-present positivity. That last phrase simply means they’re waaaaaay too happy, given the context of the photo.

Nothing wrong with happiness, mind you. But anyone who has spent much time at all in high-pressure conference room meetings knows that they don’t usually elicit ear-to-ear grins.

Customer service rep photos are a classic example. Who knew that these reps were all models, can wear their headsets all day without messing up their hair and smile 100% of the time. God bless the reps who help us all out, but they don’t look anything like that.

The same is true with family photos. The kids are delightful. Shirts are perfectly pressed and there’s nary a stain or wrinkle in sight.

Who can relate to any of this?

Inserting these kinds of images into content informs our readers that we don’t have any real people in our organization, customer base or membership. It shows that we take the easy way out.

And, most importantly, it demonstrates a lack of authenticity and creativity on our part. If we can’t be original with our own website/social media/print, then why should they trust us with their identity? Your readers already know that your customer service reps aren’t cast from modeling agencies. Instead, show the people a real and — gasp — flawed person.

So what to do instead? One, consider taking your own photo. It doesn’t have to be professional. Take several and one of them will likely work. If you have the budget, hire a pro to take them. Two, consider Creative Commons photos (these are free and are licensed for public use). On many occasions, I’ve found these photos to be superior (and certainly more authentic) than a stock alternative. Finally, is there another type of image (an info graphic, illustration, etc.) that could get the job done?

Don’t be afraid to let your customers and members see the real you. You’re someone they can relate to.

Special thanks to David Meerman Scott for inspiring this column.

Youth is overrated: Just ask Walt Disney


When you stroll through Disneyland or Disney World, you'd surmise it was the creation of hip young dudes who concocted the whole thing over decaf, soy milk lattes.
But of course you know that's not true. We know Walt was behind it all.
But did you know that Walt Disney was 54 when Disneyland opened?
Although he may have had the vision at 24, 34 or even 44, it took him several decades for it all to come together. If he'd pulled the trigger at 44, the park may have just been another also-ran, lost to the mediocre amusement bin of history. 
Sure, there are some bumps and bruises that go along with the "middle ages," but this is yet one more example that -- no matter your age -- the best is yet to come.
I remember sitting down at my first job as a newspaper reporter, lamenting several factual errors I had made in the paper. My boss, a wonderfully gracious guy, simply told me something like, "There is no substitute for experience."
So, no matter your age, let's make the most of lessons learned, failures and victories and give the gift you were made to deliver for the world.
The best is yet to come.
Hat tip to Michael Stelzner of the Social Media Examiner for sharing this inspiring factoid.

“What do you do?” he asked. “What do you need?” he responded.

The world looks different when you view it through the lens of opportunity.

In the midst of a celebratory and boisterous room came a booming question from the back.
“What do you do?” yelled a stranger to a man busy pouring beverages for guests.
Not missing a beat, the host responded, “What do you need?”
“I need a Hispanic grandfather!” was the reply.
From this seemingly odd dialogue came the first modeling gig for my friend Simon Casas, a Hispanic grandfather, professional bass guitar player, human resources consultant and general polymath.
I caught up with Simon recently after a few years apart and was, as always, motivated by his ability to see opportunity where most miss it.
“I’ll try almost anything,” he told me over coffee at a local Hy-Vee. “I’m on a brochure somewhere but I haven’t seen it yet.”

A few weeks after that photo shoot, he was enjoying a conversation in a lobby with a couple of “new” strangers. They wondered if he might be interested in appearing in a commercial. He auditioned, but did not get the part. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I have long moonlighted as a free-lance writer and communications consultant, and Simon and I were exploring ways to expand the work. When the topic came to prospecting for leads, he saw the glass half full where I saw it half empty.
There’s more water in my glass now, thanks to Simon.
What about overcoming objections? He suggested this: “Would you have any objection if I (came by your office, gave you a bid …).” When the question is phrased that way, very few people ever object, he said. It avoids setting off defense mechanisms.
He views business networking as making friends, without manipulation or expectation. And he’s someone who makes friends everywhere he goes. It seems effortless. People seek him out.
When you go through life with a mission to make friends, he says, things happen.
There’s a ton of wisdom packed into this Hispanic grandfather, and I’m privileged to be the recipient of just a little bit of it. He’s motivated me to tackle some projects that I might have shied away from in the past.
“What do you do?”
“What do you need?”

The power of showing up


 Woody Allen is credited with saying “80 percent of success is showing up.”
But Matt Anthony reminded me of another kind of “showing up” at the Kansas City Quills awards earlier this month.
Matt, the keynote speaker, shared about his work with the Head for the Cure Foundation, an organization he started after the death of his brother Chris.
Matt asked: When someone you care about is in crisis, what should you do?
“Answer that question before you ask it,” he said. “The answer is always the same. And that’s to show up.”
The simplicity of this has confounded me many times, and I know I’m not alone in the confusion. When someone has lost a loved one or a job, is sick or even mildly discouraged, the most powerful antidote is our presence.
I have stood in lines at funeral visitations many times wondering, “What should I say?” — as if there is a magical phrase that will bring healing. What matters is simply being there. When we show up it demonstrates “I am here for you.” What greater gift could we give?
Reading the book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible is instructive. Job suffered incredible loss and was immediately joined by friends who sat with him in empathetic silence and mourning. That was what he needed. Problems started when the friends began talking. That’s not to say we shouldn’t speak. But, “I’m sorry for this loss” may be all that needs to be said. And if you are comfortable giving a hug, that speaks volumes.
We should avoid glib, Pollyanna-like statements and cliches (“they’re in a better place, blah, blah, blah”) even though our words may be true. Saying them may make us feel better, but they won’t help the person who is suffering. At least not in the moment of crisis.
Sometimes I am conflicted about whether I should visit or call someone who is hospitalized, sick or just plain bummed out. We all face pressures of time. In addition, we must battle an inward compulsion to avoid situations that bring us face to face with suffering. But I have become convinced, through many failures of my own, that we should always err on the side of showing up.
It’s amazing how much a text, prayer, Facebook message — or better yet — a personal word can do for an aggrieved soul. Next time that soul may be yours.
Let’s be sure to show up.
Thanks Matt, for the reminder.

Your most important skill set: It's not what you think

Your tech savvy and a Ph.D. can't compensate for a lack of this essential.


If you’re reading this, you’re interested in improving a skill set.
Or you’re my mom (who, I should add, is also interested in personal growth).
What is the most important skill that today’s tech-savvy, ultra-competitive, digital marketplace demands?
Depending on your field, there are certainly barriers to entry that you must overcome to even be considered. Engineering firms don’t hire painters to design bridges. Maybe a company insists on a college degree, even if it’s not really necessary.
But beyond those gates, there’s really only one indispensable skill. And it’s not new.

It’s the ability to relate well to people. Seth Godin calls this “emotional labor.”
It’s difficult, challenging work. What is emotional labor? Just a few components are:

  • You know how to smile and you do it often.
  • You listen, without interrupting, when someone is talking.
  • You can give eye contact without staring at your shoes.

Advanced tasks of emotional labor include:

  • Confronting someone with firmness and fairness, while not destroying their dignity
  • Negotiating
  • Going to a social event, alone, when you don’t know anyone

Emotional labor is equally important for introverts and extroverts and each will face their own unique challenges.
How important is it? A few years ago an author named Amy Chua wrote a book called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” where she vigorously critiqued American parents for producing a society of entitled wimps.
She had some good points. But Chua also revealed that she:

  • Wouldn’t let her kids go to slumber parties
  • Wouldn’t let them watch TV, play video games or make crafts
  • Forced her daughter to do 2,000 math problems a night when she came in second in a competition
  • Rejected her children’s birthday cards because they lacked excellence
  • Threatened to burn one of her daughter’s stuffed animals unless she played a piece of music perfectly

Columnist David Brooks pointed out that the great value in these allegedly throwaway activities is that they teach us how to relate to and thrive with others.
“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls.
"Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms ... is really hard. … This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.”
No amount of skill can compensate for a disruptive, socially dysfunctional, volatile personality.
The great news is that, if we’re humble and teachable, we can all improve our relational skills.
We grow by doing, by confronting our social fears (we all have them), by persevering. By starting small, if need be.
At that next event where you don’t know anyone, head to an empty chair at a full table. “Can I join you?”
The adventure begins.

I’m with stupid. And he’s me.

"Stupid" is a fear-based self-perception that limits our potential.


I remember growing up in the 70s and 80s seeing the “I’m with stupid” t-shirts everywhere. Maybe they’re still around.
In his book, “What to do When it’s Your Turn,” Seth Godin points out that most of us are obsessed with a fear of looking stupid. 
This fear stops us in our tracks. It prevents progress.
The paradox is this: We remain stupid because we fear looking that way.
How’s that?

Ever refuse to ask a question because you don’t want to feel foolish? We keep nodding our heads in agreement during an explanation we fail to grasp. We forget a name and refuse to seek a simple reintroduction.
No one must know that we don’t have it all together.
“Stupid is the way we feel when working on a difficult problem,” Godin says. “Stupid is the emotion associated with learning – we are stupid and then we are not.”
Stupid is a harsh word and Godin isn’t calling anyone names. He’s honestly relating how we feel. We are not stupid and should not see ourselves or others that way. A more accurate description would be that we are lifelong learners (if we indeed choose to be). We are constantly in training (if we allow ourselves to be).
There is not really a stupid. There is just a before and after.
Mario Livio’s book “Brilliant Blunders” (confession: I have not read it, only summaries) details significant mistakes of Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle and Albert Einstein.
“These five scientists expanded our knowledge of life on earth, the evolution of the earth, and the evolution of the universe, despite and because of their errors,” says
“Stupid” is the secret sauce of success. You must break it to make it.
What task is the “S word” preventing you from attempting?

  • Giving a speech?
  • Meeting someone for coffee?
  • Losing weight?
  • Changing jobs?

It’s time to cast off the pretension that we’re something we’re not. Just dive in. When you come out, the stupid will be in the past … until your next learning opportunity.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Godin says. “Nothing except the feeling of stupid. And stupid is a good thing.”

In Haiti, learning compassion over pity

Roy Harryman in Haiti


I gripped the bus seat in front of me with white knuckles and tried to persuade my stomach that everything was alright.

It seemed like a high speed chase from a movie scene: narrow streets teeming with people, vehicles nearly missing each other and people jumping out of the way.

Welcome to Haiti.

As I neared the end of two full days of travel, I wondered if I had made a mistake in agreeing to lead this mission trip. It sounded good on paper, but now …

Whether I was ready or not, the mission was going to begin the next morning at 6:45 a.m. in St. Luis D’Nord, on Haiti’s north coast. Our team of about 80 was kicking off an eye clinic that is known throughout the country and even beyond. For a minimal fee, people get access to high quality care, including surgery.

Life is tough in Haiti, to say the least. But being blind there can be a death sentence. Blindness is not something that affects only the elderly and the injured. Because of vitamin deficiencies, children develop cataracts and other problems that require surgery.

While surgeons, techs and nurses worked their magic on 1,000 patients (and performed 150 surgeries), my job was much more humbling. I prayed with people. Hundreds and hundreds of people.

It was an intense and impacting experience to look into their eyes, learn their names and attempt to absorb their pain. I had the privilege of experiencing the people, their suffering and their needs in a very intimate and personal way.

The trip was also challenging in other ways. While we were working at the clinic, the well ran dry at the mission where we stayed. This was obviously no small challenge. The mission’s team adapted by loading drums of local river water onto a tractor and driving them back and forth daily. Add a little bleach and hopefully all is well. (Note: We did not drink that water but used it for bathing and washing dishes.)

The scarcity of water meant that you didn’t flush the toilet or take a shower. However, you could dump the river water over your head to clean up, which I actually found quite refreshing.

There were also a few moments of cultural shock and awe. I joined a group that went to bring supplies to inmates at a local jail (in Haiti jails are not the nice places that they are here with regular feedings, prisoners’ rights and health care). When I stepped outside for a moment, a group of people was hurrying around a corner carrying a man on a bed who had been badly injured in a machete fight. I apparently seemed to be in charge and they began speaking to me in Haitian Creole – obviously to no avail. I quickly referred them to the police, who told them to continue their long walk to the hospital – bed and patient in tow.

And there’s more. When praying with patients one afternoon, I caught a blur out of the corner of my eye. When I turned around, two Haitian women were in a full-fledged fistfight. One of the women had been carrying a baby that skidded to the ground when the fight broke out (the baby was OK).

I held back at first because I did not want to be an American male in the midst of a brawl with Haitian women. But when others failed to restrain her, I jumped in and helped to tear one woman away from another. Let’s just say she was a feisty one.

In addition to those experiences, my senses were assaulted daily with the sights, sounds and smells of extreme poverty.

This caused me to grapple with the question of who is actually poor. Lack of material goods is only one reflection of poverty. In the United States, many people are relationally impoverished with broken families, loneliness and isolation. Others are broken by life-crushing addictions. Which condition is worse?

As I think on this, I remember the woman who was joyfully singing hymns while she cleaned the men’s restroom in Port-au-Prince. Was she really poor?

I don’t know if I’ll get back to Haiti, but the nation and its people have changed me. What are the takeaways?

1. We can’t help everyone, but we can help someone. This quote is attributed to John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

2. We can do more than we think we can when we put ourselves in a position for God to stretch us. I never would have thought that I could pray for people in desperate need for hours upon end, day after day. Yet God gave me the strength one patient at a time.

3. There is a difference between pity and compassion. Pity says “I feel sorry for you.” Compassion means suffering along with another. There is no doubt I have tended toward pity for most of my life. On this trip God began to stretch my soul so that pity was transformed into compassion.

I’m thankful to the people of Haiti for sharing these lessons. They didn’t know it, but they were the best of teachers.