Late last August, I summoned a group of men to help send my sons Eli, 18, and Oliver, 23, off on the next legs of their life journeys. Eleven showed up, and a similar number sent messages via e-mail and snail mail. Some had known Oliver and Eli for most of the boys’ lives. Others were meeting one or the other or both for the first time. It didn’t matter. For the most part, what they had to say was universally relevant, regardless of age or relation or station in life.
The gathering was scheduled from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., but not a soul had shown up at launch time. “Maybe no one’s coming,” I thought. “Maybe older men trying to impart advice to younger men in a group setting is just too weird.”
A few minutes after 7:00, Eli and I exchanged text messages and I found out he was over at his mom’s house with nearly a dozen of his friends who’d spontaneously shown up to hang out, play music, and say good-bye on the eve of his departure. My instinct was to invite them all, but my apartment isn’t big enough. Besides, this was all about elders sending off youngers. “Leave your friends,” the father in me said, “and get your butt over here like we planned.”
Thirty minutes later my apartment was packed and abuzz. We gathered in a circle with Eli and Oliver on the couch. I lit a candle and began the proceedings by saying that I simply wanted to mark this transition in my sons’ lives by giving friends an opportunity to share a few words of advice. Eli read a description of his imminent 75-day mountaineering and sea-kayaking trip. Oliver told us about his plans to live deep in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle with the Achuar Indians. And then we randomly went around the room, sharing whatever it was we had to say. It was a very simple and easygoing ritual, a conversation really, yet it was very moving. Among the many pearls:
Learn the plight of others, both more and less fortunate . . . Tend relationships like gold . . . Work out issues sooner . . . Express love, kindness, and difficult emotions when and while you can . . . Always work to improve your emotional intelligence, which will serve you in ways science and rationality cannot . . . The worst-seeming times can reveal important insights and openings . . . Enjoy and give all of yourself . . . It’s not about you, it’s about being in relationship, with your teachers, fellow students, and Mother Earth . . . The power is in the connection . . . Learn some practical skills along with deeper intellectual skills . . . Maintain a balance between self-confidence and humility, curiosity and independence . . . You are an ancestor: Listen inside and you’ll hear the voices both of your own ancestors and of the ones who will follow you; they’ll help you make good choices.
One man’s comments had special resonance for me. He urged the boys to “make many mistakes and fail many times, for it’s only through facing and thinking about and trying to correct our mistakes and failures that we learn and grow.”
I wonder what images or words, if any, will stick with E and O; maybe just the sweet feeling of a dozen older men listening with genuine interest to their hopes and dreams.
Ultimately, I did nothing more than make a list, send the invitation, and set the stage. According to organizational consultant Peter Block, however, that’s often enough. In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, he writes that “the job of leaders is to [create community by getting] the right people together in the right way—the art of convening is [the most] critical skill.”
I didn’t set out to create community that beautiful summer night. I just wanted to give Eli and Oliver a good send-off. Yet, surrounded by friends and family, I learned anew the meaning of the W.B. Yeats line “I was blessed and could bless.”
Eric Utne, the founder of Utne Reader, is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing and the founder of Community Earth Councils, which bring together baby boomers, millennials, and others to address social and environmental challenges at the local level. www.EarthCouncils.org