Inspiration

It is a wonderful experience when, as a coach, I can inspire a client or a student with an idea, a reframing of thought, or a practice that has them engage in the world more freely. This inspiration happens by way of some alchemy arising from the special relationship that exists between coach and client, coach and student. It’s never manufactured. I have also been inspired by music, art and nature.

Most often though, I am inspired by people. The free expression of young children, the brutal honesty of teenagers, the trust that individuals who have been mistreated can extend to a stranger are all deeply inspiring experiences that make me weak in the knees, melt my heart and bring me to tears.

One such instance occurred this past April, when I had occasion to visit my nephew, Jeremy. He was a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington preparing to defend his thesis. He had been studying a highly specialized form of applied mathematics for nearly seven years, and it was finally time to present his work and complete a long course of study and investigation.

When I learned that his defense date had been set, I phoned my sister (his mother) and asked if I could represent our family at the event (they would have had to travel twice as far, plus Jeremy had decided that having them there would put too much pressure on him).

On a rainy Thursday in April I arrived at the U Dub campus as most students were wiping the sleep from their eyes. Jeremy and I met outside his apartment building and walked together to grab a bite to eat. I inhaled my burrito while he left his quesadilla untouched. Conversation was direct and brief, and I loved being in his presence. With Jeremy, discussion is purposeful. There is no shooting the breeze the way you might when catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while—no digressing into tangential subjects that have zero relevance to him. Our dialogue is succinct, germane, and filled with long, silent pauses. You see, Jeremy has schizophrenia.

I got my first true flavor of Jeremy’s character at my wedding aboard a boat on the San Francisco Bay. While his siblings and cousins were racing around the ship free from parental control, Jeremy had charmed his way into the hearts of the bartenders and spent the evening taking drink orders, entertaining guests with lively conversation, and happily collecting the tips. He sought and created a new adventure in the confines of three hours at a wedding reception and made a pocketful of cash. He was nine years old.

In his sophomore year at M.I.T., Jeremy was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His frightened and bewildered parents brought Jeremy home to find appropriate care and treatment, not knowing what this meant. It took years and it involved hospitalizations, medication trials, and various individual and family therapies until his condition stabilized. After four years, Jeremy returned to M.I.T. to complete his undergraduate work. With the same connection to his creative, adventuresome spirit and undeniable courage, my nephew re-engaged in the academic foundation he loved and would need for his life’s work: a mighty act of faith and conviction.

Lunch ended and it was time to make our way to the defense. The appointed hour arrived and so did Jeremy’s team of advisors and colleagues. The meeting lasted one hour, during which the committee asked questions and addressed Jeremy’s thinking around several formulas.

Toward the end of the meeting, all were asked to leave except for Jeremy, so they could discuss remaining issues privately. Out in the hallway, time moved glacially as I practiced deep breathing to quell my nervous anticipation.

Then Jeremy came out, looking somewhat puzzled and perhaps alarmed, and said in his gentle voice, “They didn’t ask me any questions.” Registering his concern and simultaneously stifling my own, I took the only respectable and reasonable action available to me: I body-slammed my 6’3” nephew, hugging him as tightly as I could, and said, “You have worked so hard and whichever way this goes, I am so proud of you.”

In that moment, I felt my knees grow weak, my heart flutter and the prickle of tears: unmistakable signs of being indelibly inspired by this young man’s grace and vulnerability.

Suddenly, the doors opened, the committee entered the hallway garrulous and chipper, shook Jeremy’s hand, declared him a graduate, thanked me for being there and promptly left. Poof. Fini. A PhD was born.

As we walked toward the commercial center for a celebratory ice cream, Jeremy called his parents to let them know the outcome of this extraordinary afternoon. Their jubilation was both audible and palpable as it poured out of the phone speaker. My nephew’s wry grin sparkled as he spoke with his mom and dad.

My day in Seattle with Jeremy was seminal, for it allowed me to peer into the majesty of human possibility. It was one of many wonderful opportunities I’ve had to witness Jeremy’s conviction to live a meaning-filled life while touching others with his rare talents. I know that he has experienced intensely dark times and that there will be other dark passages to come. No one can fix this. There is no roadmap available to set expectations or to plot a course to each new development. Not for Jeremy. Not for his parents. Not for his brothers. But maybe it is the absence of a roadmap that has given this family a more foundational resource from which they operate: love. Their allegiance is strong, informed, practical and dedicated, and it surrounds Jeremy like a bulwark.

To me, nothing is more inspiring. It certainly appeared that I traveled to Seattle to support Jeremy. But what I discovered there is the inspiration that emanates from a fierce commitment to live one day at a time, and an honest, unapologetic embrace of life’s raw realities.

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