My Panic Attack behind the Pulpit – Reflections and Confessions of an Ex-Evangelist (Part 1)

October 1, 2012, is a day I’ll never forget.

I was the main speaker for our morning church service. Our annual convention, the Feast of Tabernacles, was kicking off and it was the first day. For the membership, this event was a high point of our year. People had gathered from surrounding states. The mood was upbeat, and people were overjoyed to have congregated together. 

Yet, as I started my sermon, I had a panic attack. 

It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I was on stage in front of hundreds of people. And I was suddenly gripped in a series of feelings that I had never felt before. 

Admittedly, I had no idea what I was experiencing at the time. There was an occasion or two before where I experienced some of this, but not to this level. 

It was 10 years ago, and I remember it as if it was yesterday. I had no idea it was going to happen. I had spoken in front of large audiences many times before. It came on suddenly and out of the blue. 

What I Was Feeling

My heart was beating out of my chest. I felt clammy. I began to sweat. 

It’s hard to describe but there was a feeling of pressing, impending doom. A suffocating tightness in my chest. It was like my world and the room were closing in. 

It literally crossed my mind that I had to walk off the stage. I wanted to run. But I couldn’t. Here I was in front of 200+ people. 

Could people tell? I asked myself, as I simultaneously tried to keep delivering my message. Surely, they can tell. 

Ninety grueling minutes. The structure of my sermon helped. Knowing that I just had to follow the outline. Get to the next series of scriptures. 

Waves would come back throughout the message. But I kept going. 

An hour and a half later, I got through it. I was exhausted and defeated. Yet I survived. 

The Ripple Effects

As I walked off that stage around 12:30 pm that day, I felt relieved and scared. Relieved I made it through. Scared because I had no idea where this came from or what it was. 

It shook my world. I had no idea what to do with it.

It undermined me in many ways. When would this happen again, I thought? It’s like it became some sort of lurking monster in the closet. 

I never spoke to anybody about it. Not my closest friends (didn’t have many, to be honest). Not even my wife. 

No Way Out

As I look back, a fair question is: Why didn’t I address this, then or later? Why didn’t I walk off the stage and deal with this?

I am sure there are many reasons, but I was in survival mode. I did not want to be humiliated. The concept of walking off the stage in the middle of a sermon would have been catastrophic, or that’s what I believed at the time. It would have been the talk of the Feast site. Frankly, it would have been the talk of the whole church. Since I was a “senior minister,” whatever that meant in hindsight, a PR campaign of some sort would surround my wife and my family.  

There was no clean way out of this. So, in the end, I concluded I had to work through it, and by work through it, I knew that meant ignore it, bury it, lock it away. Survival mode. 

For years, I didn’t even feel I could speak to my wife about this. Not that she wouldn’t have been supportive. It’s that you didn’t talk about things like this because they didn’t happen to God’s people, spiritual people, normal people…so if it happened to me, then I must not be those things. 

The Ecclesiastical Climate 

To provide some context, from a church culture perspective, talking about anxiety or having a panic attack or even emotional health in general, was not acceptable. It just “wasn’t done.” To be open about one’s mental health, or worse, emotional struggles, would never happen.

See, God’s spirit is one of a “sound mind.” And, if you don’t have a sound mind, well, then you are in trouble. You’re weak. You are not close enough to God. 

Then there was the additional level of being in the “ministry.” There was this pressure to be perfect. Granted, we would all admit or say the words that nobody was perfect and that everyone fell short, including ministers. But, when ministers actually did fall short, or need help, it really wasn’t accepted or supported, and it was seen as weakness and shortcoming, plain and simple. 

So, what did you do with any weaknesses you had? You covered them. You buried them. As deep as you could. 

You didn’t address them. You sent them as far down as possible, and you piled as much stuff on top as you could, hoping they wouldn’t surface too often. 

The Chronological Context

In 2012, I had been absolutely run ragged. A campus (or,  more properly, a compound) was being built. 

The church had received large sums of money due to new teachings from the leader. In 2008, the infamous “Clarion Call” sermons were produced. This essentially laid out a timeline that led brethren to believe they should give all their money before Jesus returned. (Incidentally, the range of time given at that time explained that it was impossible for Jesus to return after 2021. He would most certainly arrive before 2021. That, evidently, didn’t happen.) But by 2011, the “Common” doctrine was instituted. An even more disgusting and onerous financial doctrine was yoked upon the necks of church membership. It was now doctrine for the Church’s apostle to tell people to sell all and send it to him. And many did, perhaps most did. 

By 2011, the Church had bought land. By 2012, construction had begun. It was an incredibly stressful time. My youngest son was born in July of that year, and instead of looking back with joy at that time, I instead don’t remember much of his birth or first few months. It was marred by stress and constant turmoil and worry. Within that same timeframe, I was present during an instance that occurred to my brother, in a roomful of grown men, that I will never forget and for which I wish I had said something. It is and will always be one of my most vivid and awful life memories. (Perhaps that’s content for another time.)

It got even worse in the years ahead, but that, too, is a topic for another chapter.

The simple point? It was an incredibly stressful time. 

The Mask

Ironically, I have pictures of this very event when I had this panic attack (included here). It’s fascinating for me now to try to look at them as an outsider and see if anything was going on. I don’t believe you can tell in the photo how close to meltdown I really was.

Like at no other point in my life, I had to keep the mask on. I had to play the part I was required to play. 

See, this was all part of something I was thrust into in my 20s. I was told I was going to be a minister really early on. I had to step up. Be mature beyond my years!

I was always pushed to be somebody I wasn’t. I was too young-looking, I had to look older. I had to part and comb my hair a certain way. I had to stop wearing shorts around the lay members (mature men don’t show their legs!). I had to wear fuller dress pants, whatever that meant. I had to remove “youngish” ways of speaking. Etc. Etc. 

Put on the mask, Kevin.  

I did.

And it almost ruined me. 

Authenticity Will Not Remain Buried

This panic attack was my mind trying to break out of the inauthentic existence it had found itself in. Cognitive dissonance was raging through my mind like an out-of-control wildfire. I just hadn’t learned to identify it yet.

It took me several more years to figure this out, but I did. On some level, as I write about this for the first time, I am still figuring it out now. 

I would pay a lot of money to travel back in time to this event. I would talk to myself and explain what was happening. I would give myself permission to accept what was going on and guide myself in making steps to improve my situation. I may have even tried to convince myself to tell the brethren in that moment exactly what was going on. Despite the shock and the gasps, I’d be willing to bet that many in the room could have related. I would tell myself to open up to my wife about it afterward and receive her support, to not go it alone.

When you are in a bad place in life, your body and mind will respond. 

The authenticity of you will not remain buried. And although I buried my true self so very, very deep, I am slowly uncovering each layer and getting back to the real me.

It’s Okay to Have Mental Health Struggles

A few weeks ago now feels like a world away. Before time gets too distant, I want to express my feelings on paper and document some lessons.  

I had a rough few days. My mental health, over the course of a week, got progressively worse each day.

Even though life was fine, actually life was damn good, it didn’t help. It’s hard to even explain my feelings, but I felt bad. Unsettled at my core.

To be honest, it was scary. I felt like I was losing control. And that’s really frightening.

I don’t know all the exact terms for some of the things I went through. Was it anxiety? Was it a panic attack? Nor do I know exactly why it happened. Why now? What is causing this and where is it coming from?

I didn’t have many good answers.

As I worked through this dark period (with my wife so wonderfully supportive by my side), we talked a lot about mental health. It seems like mental health is still a bad word in our society. We don’t like to talk about it. We don’t like to admit we have struggles. As a society, we are far more likely to applaud the physical health fitness that a person achieves.

The feelings that come to mind when admitting mental health challenges are shame, embarrassment, and weakness.

We have to change the way we view mental health. And it starts with ourselves. It starts with me.

It’s hard for me to accept this, but I have to say, it’s okay that I sometimes have mental health challenges.

Fitness is a widely understood concept today. We generally want to be physically fit, right? But the truth is we go through periods in our life where we have less fitness. We eat too much garbage, we pull back on our exercise, we cheat on our sleep, etc.

We have a whole box of tools when it comes to our physical fitness. When are using all the tools, we’re on. We feel great about ourselves and we know we are on track. We have every tool coming out of the box to be used to keep our physical bodies in shape. We’re fit.

Mental fitness is no different. It, too, has a whole box of tools that can be used. However, we have less of an awareness of what these tools are.

When you don’t know how to use a box of tools to fix something, what do you do? Heck, you may not even know what most of the tools are even called, or how they even work. What do you do?

Ask for help.

Many years ago, I was in a place where talking about or admitting any of these things was looked down upon. And I mean in a big way. As I look back, my biggest struggle with mental health was during that period. I was going through some significant trauma. And I had no idea that it was manifesting itself in mental ill-health. Much more could be said about this, perhaps in a later post.

The good news is I have come a long way from that period in my life. Life is good, and I am grateful for that. I am even grateful for that period a few weeks ago.

Though dark, it helped me realize I am ready for more light. Though helpless, I am now asking for help.

And it’s working.    

My son, if I forget to tell you, one day, hell, it’s going to be more than one day, you will have some mental health hurdles. It’s okay. You’re human like the rest of us.

There’s no shame. You don’t need to feel embarrassed. You are not weak.

In fact, it’s courageous. Be humble and brave, my boy. Ask for help. You’ll get it.

Regain Perspective in a Pandemic

It’s hard to know where to begin in the middle of a global pandemic. What can I say? 2020 has been one hell of a year. Time has slowed down. Time has sped up. Life has been crazy.

It’s interesting, however. I haven’t really wanted to write, and I am not sure why. If I can step back and analyze the reasons, it’s probably because we were all thrust into a marathon we didn’t want to run. Life has an element right now of just surviving. Putting one foot in front of the other, day after day. It’s not really fun. But after 9 months of this unwanted marathon, it’s time to put some observations into words.

The biggest takeaway I have is to maintain perspective. When times get tough, and they will at some point, try to keep your perspective. 

The truth is it’s really easy to lose perspective in life. 

Headlines can cause you to lose perspective. They are written in a way to get your attention, to illicit some sort of emotional reaction. All through this year, I have struggled with the news. Digging deeper often allowed me to regain perspective. On the other hand, at times it was best to not read anything. 

Emotions are a big factor, for sure. The worst emotion is probably fear. Our fears almost never come to fruition but they can easily drive us to lose perspective. Earlier this year, we emptied our grocery store shelves. Why? No real tangible reason. Collectively, we were driven by irrational fear. 

When I saw myself doing something like getting more toilet paper, or going to the grocery store at the break of dawn to stock up on food, I was suddenly doing something I had never done before in my life. It was embarrassing, frankly. My irrational fears exposed me. What the hell was I doing? Losing perspective.

Losing perspective is dangerous. Perspective is generally our reality. So when we lose perspective we are losing our grasp on reality. 

Perspective can be defined as “the appearance to the eye of objects in respect to their relative distance and positions.” As human beings, we have the special proclivity to screw up our relative distance to things. We also screw up our position, thinking it more important than everyone else’s.

Several times through this pandemic, I have had to hit reset. I have had to step back and try to gain a better and fuller perspective. One way I did this was to write a long list of all the things I was grateful for. That helped a lot. Another way was to write down a plan and execute it. Staying busy and productive is huge. 

Gratitude and productivity.  

I certainly didn’t do it perfectly. I apologize to you for the times I lost perspective during the pandemic of 2020. You probably saw it when I lost my temper or lost my patience. I’m not proud of that, but I think I have learned through it. One day, I’m sure you will do the same.   

So, if I forget to tell you, if you are going through a global pandemic, or any other negative event in your life, don’t lose perspective. But believe me, you will lose it, just be ready to gain it back.

Love Who You Love

Jennifer just had a procedure. It was a pretty straightforward surgery, so there wasn’t too much to be concerned about. But it’s time like these that cause a person to think. The standard surface worries and stresses of daily life fade away and we find ourselves plunging deep into much more serious “what ifs?” and fears. Even if but for brief moments.

These exploratory walks into our psyche are as enriching as they are scary. They allow us to ponder, take stock. We gain a little perspective on life.

So many of us (me included, like, all the time) get caught up in day-to-day life. We labor under proverbial yokes of the modern age coined in phrases such as “the days are long and the years are short.” We don’t like Mondays, we yearn for the weekend. Rinse, wash, repeat….

Why?? Why do we get stuck ticked off at the mud around our shoes and not look up at the horizon? Why can’t we zoom out on our lives, as if it was Google Earth, and see the big picture?

The takeaway for me as I have a few extra quiet moments is: Love who you love. I know this may be pretty simple and obvious. And it is. But I think when we get caught up with our lives, we let that slip. I know I do. I know I can do better.

We all have people that we love. When asked, or prompted, we will readily state we love an individual. We may readily say “I love you,” even though that may sadly wane in some of our relationships. This is all the second part of the phrase, love who you love.

The first part of the phrase is the hard part. We don’t have time for that, you see. We have work to do. Activities to get to. Food to cook. Laundry to fold. Social media to swipe at. Our world is swallowed by money, career, relationship needs and worries.

But I must admit: If I spent more time on this one point, I would be a better and happier human being. Don’t get me wrong. I am happy. But I can be happier. And of course I can be better. We need to stop and remind ourselves that we are surrounded by people who we love. We just need to love them!

Go out of your way to stop the noise in your life and show affection to those you consider close to you. Put aside the daily grind to show your loved ones exactly what they mean to you.

My sons, whom I dearly love, I pledge to do better, to love you more. And if I ever forget to tell you, love who you love.

Storm the Beach

June 17, 2016. D-Day in the life of Jennifer and Kevin Denee. It was a turning point, the biggest single moment in our lives. A day where we were saying goodbye to our jobs, but also our careers, to our friends, but also our family, to our community and even our church. Really, we were departing from everything we had ever known. We jumped off the cliff into the abyss, and hoped for the best.

Though we had our nerves, June 17 was not as difficult as we had expected. By that point, all the machinery was moving, the snowball was rolling down the hill and gaining speed. We walked out that door, walked off the compound and never looked back.

How did we do it? What gave us the strength to make such a dramatic change in our lives?

At first, we were afraid. It was scary to think about changing almost every aspect of our lives. We had worries. Man, we had worries. Not only were our own lives at stake, but also our three children.

But we soon found courage. Early in our process of preparation we came across the following quote : “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear–not absence of fear” (Mark Twain).

That hit me like a ton of bricks. The fear, worry and unknown were all there. We weren’t going to get rid of it. How could we? We had to master the fear. it was a process that took time. And it didn’t happen overnight. Courage is something to be grown and developed over time. It’s not a one-time event. Ours started small, but grew into a titan.

Two big factors helped us develop the courage we needed.

First, our convictions were the foundation. The “courage of our convictions” is a real thing. We knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we were in a wrong place. It was false, and had proven itself so, over and over again. Nothing was going to shake us from that fact. Having that conviction fueled tremendous courage deep inside our souls.

When we develop strong convictions, the courage becomes voracious.It’s like a fire that can’t be quenched. We had no choice. We knew what we had to do. We had to win the war against Germany. And if that meant developing a D-Day type plan, we would do exactly that.

That leads me to the second factor that gave us courage. That was an all-hands-on-deck focus and development of a plan. It wasn’t some sort of simple linear plan. It had many facets, many fronts. If there was anything that could prepare us or strengthen our position, we did it. However small or insignificant it may have been, if we thought it would help the success of our mission, we did it.

Furthermore, we analyzed every possible scenario, playing out plans A, B, C and D. Worst case scenarios were also assessed and prepared for. In most cases, those scenarios, by their nature, were fairly unrealistic. The odds are they wouldn’t happen. But when we prepared for the worst, all the other scenarios become easier.

We looked at our plan operationally, but also strategically and tactically. We got granular. As small parts of our plan fell into place, that strengthened us to take on other aspects. Small preparatory wins, led to tremendous courage.

We can do this, we thought.

So the day came, and we stormed the beach. The strength of our convictions was our flag. Our feet were prepared for the mission.

Two and a half years later, we look back on that huge turning point in our lives. No doubt the changes were as big as we thought they were going to be. Hundreds of people have asked how did we do it.

Courage, fueled by convictions and strengthened by developing a detailed plan.

Son, there may come a time in your life when you have to make a huge change. Don’t worry, you will be afraid. It will be scary. But remember, have mastery over the fear. That can be done through courage. Fuel your courage with strong convictions. Strengthen your courage with an all-out preparation for your D-day.

Son, if I forget to tell you, storm the beach, win your war.

Wear Out the Treads

1,308 miles. Over the last year and a half, I have run 1,308 miles or almost 7 million feet. This is according to a tracking app on my phone. It hasn’t always been on, so I am probably closer to 1,500 miles.

I could write so much about running, and the impact it has had on me. In time, I am sure I will. But in summary, it brought clarity. It has given me a determined focus. When I run, treasures of the mind come to the forefront (that’s a subject for a different time). I find untapped strength deep inside me that I had never discovered before.

Perhaps, just perhaps, running saved my life.

I’ve been through two sets of shoes, wearing the treads out. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, I ran.

Running may not be your thing. And that’s okay. Find your thing. Find the exercise (or exercises) that works for you, and stick to it. Come up with a disciplined routine.

If you are fortunate to learn this early, the following may not apply. But often in our youth (teens, twenties, etc.) we think we are going to live forever. Frankly, we live like we are going to live forever. We are invincible. That leads to us not taking care of our bodies as well as we should. I was one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been active. But only recently I found my thing.

The benefits of a disciplined exercise routine help on so many levels. Physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The dividends to be reaped can be found on so many levels. You will become a more effective person, and positively impact more people in your life.

If I forget to tell you, wear out the treads.

Every Sunrise, Every Sunset

All around the world, regardless of who we are, we all experience the same day. No matter our name, skin color, gender, culture, circumstances, we all share a common existence. Every 24 hours, we experience the same mile-markers as everyone else on this earth, including a sunrise and sunset.

If you let them, sunrises and sunsets almost always get your attention. They are the most beautiful, vibrant and colorful things you will see on a given day. They present a time for reflection and meditation. They can help you to stop and think. Sunrises present renewal and a fresh start. Sunsets represent completion and fulfilled goals.

Each minute of the rising or setting sun is different than the other. It’s a masterpiece painting, but a painting that slowly changes every time you look up and study it.

If I forget, my dear son, take the time to get strength from each sunrise and bask in every sunset.

I try to do this every day now. In fact, the picture that accompanies this post includes a project where I tried to take as many photos of sunrises and sunsets for one year. It’s something I don’t think I will ever stop doing.

We only have some 27,740 number of days to live on this earth (plus or minus a few thousand). For the first 15 to 20 years of our life, we probably aren’t focused on things like sunrises or sunsets. So you can quite quickly subtract 7,000 from that number. Then, in a place like Ohio, it is sunny or partly sunny about 50 percent of the time. Before long, you come to about 10,000 sunrises and 10,000 sunsets. That’s not very many… And every day, you have one less.

There have been times in my life where I have not appreciated sunrises and sunsets. I was too busy, too distracted. Running on a wheel.

My child, get up early. Drink in every sunrise, and bask in every sunset. You will be thankful you did.

Talk to the Stranger Sitting Next to You

We are always on the go. Passing people daily as we drive to wherever we are going. In almost every case, we don’t know the passerby “from Adam,” and yet they are living in our town, or even in our neighborhood. Life is very much like our intersections or roundabouts. We generally stop only long enough so others can keep moving. And a few seconds later, we too, are moving on to our destination.

Sometimes life presents opportunities where you are sitting right next to somebody you have never met. Restaurants, public transit, etc. Flights too are often one of these occasions.

If I forget to tell you, talk to the stranger sitting next to you.

In February 2015, I was returning from a flight overseas and had a layover in Toronto, Canada. However, due to a snowstorm, my final flight to Cleveland was cancelled, so I had to stay over in a hotel. The next morning, the weather was still quite bad, but I got booked on a fight to Cleveland.

It was a small airplane. Three, maybe four, seats wide. I was on the window seat, and got there when the seat next to me was empty. Maybe it’s just me, but there is always a little nervous expectation of who will sit beside me. Within a few minutes a gentleman sat down next to me. I had learned many years prior to always engage people sitting next to me. I have discovered fascinating lives and learned much about humanity. For instance, I vividly remember speaking at length to a lady who was a nurse who had just come from Eastern Congo (we were flying from Nairobi to Europe) and the stories of suffering and rape that she expressed were incredibly saddening. That one flight made it more real for me than any 20 news stories.

But back to my flight in Toronto. The man who sat next to me was incredibly kind and engaging. He had very broad experiences and we shared both a love of horticulture and had both traveled to Africa. We talked for what ended up being hours. Since the weather was still bad, we sat on the tarmac for a very long time. It was supposed to be a quick flight, but it took many hours. This would have been one of those flights where frustration built, and impatience reigned. But the time passed quickly with the engrossing discussion. I learned much. He talked about how at one point he worked for Windsor Castle and that he was interviewed by the Queen as the last part of the interview process. A very interesting man that, at that time, expanded my horizons to the many good people who live in this world.

A year and a half later, I wrote a brief note to him, expressing some of my gratitude for our discussion. He, likewise, was appreciative of my comments.

In truth, I believe, there is a connection and a bond there that will last a lifetime. I believe we will meet again one day. All this from just one discussion.

Every time you sit next to a stranger, you have an awesome opportunity to learn about a new world. A world other than your own. Engage and ask thoughtful questions. You will be thankful you did. You will wish you were in bad weather and were delayed for hours stuck on the tarmac.

If I forget to tell you, talk to the stranger sitting next to you.

Turn the Car Around

Duffy. A name impressed on my mind forever. It is the name of a sweet 14-year-old dog who lost his life one cold Ohio winter day. But Duffy is also the face of a lesson that I will never forget.

The lesson begins when I turned the car around. I was driving home on my lunch break after giving a radio interview. The event went well, I thought, and I was feeling exhilarated. As I was driving, I suddenly saw a woman about ten feet away from the road looking down towards the shoulder of this state highway. Then I saw something lying on the side of the road. At first, I couldn’t tell what it was. But, as I passed, it looked like a dog. “Is it hers?”, I thought to myself. The body language of the woman was hard to read as I was passing by at 45 miles an hour. However, I felt something. She appeared to be paralyzed, unable to move. A part of me wanted to keep driving…keep riding the high of my morning. But another part of me said to turn the car around. I did.

See, I have not always been willing to turn my car around. In fact, there have been times in my life, that I drove past somebody on the road and a part of me wondered whether they needed help. But very quickly, another part of me drowned out the other. I justified the situation away. The person was on a cellphone, so help is coming. Another person has already stopped, therefore they don’t need my help. It doesn’t look very serious; I have to get to my appointment. And a few minutes later, the whole situation passed from my rear view mirror and from my memory.

Recently, my wife and I have asked ourselves, why don’t we stop?

So here was my opportunity on this dreary, overcast Ohio day. In fact, I had just spoken on the radio about how my company loves to serve others, and how this fits perfectly with who I am as a person. As I passed this women, I found myself beginning to entertain the excuses. But I called myself out. And I pulled into the church parking lot just down the road and turned back to the scene.

As I pulled my car over, I rolled down my window and asked the lady if she needed help. Her face was filled with grief. She could barely speak. She didn’t know what to say or do. I asked what the dog’s name was and she replied sorrowfully, “Duffy.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. She explained he had been lost for about five hours and that she lived down the road a ways. I then repeated, “Is there anything I can do? Can I help you get Duffy back home?”

She looked at me, glanced down at my office attire, and said, “No, you are too well dressed.” She didn’t want me to get some of Duffy’s blood on my clothes. I insisted that would not be a problem. I explained we could put him in my trunk and I could drive her and her sweet pup home. I didn’t have anything in the car with the exception of a few papers from a networking event earlier that day. It was going to make a mess of my trunk. But that didn’t matter to me. She took off her coat and wrapped her dog, trying to contain the body parts that had been partially ripped away. As we were starting to carry him across the road and to my trunk, another lady stopped and helped.

As we got poor Duffy in the trunk, and the lady got in my passenger seat, she explained how he was 14 years old and that he used to be a sled dog. I could tell she loved him like a child. Her grief and pain were deep. At a point, she said, “Oh Duffy, what did you do?” My heart ached for this lady and her loss.

We got Duffy back to the farm he had grown up on…where he had grown old with his owner. The lady thanked me several times for stopping. Despite the utter anguish all over her face, I could see the gratitude shining through. She was so appreciative somebody was there to help her bring her beloved dog back home. She even introduced herself.

In the emotion of the moment, I must admit that I didn’t commit her name to memory, but I will always remember Duffy. And I will always remember the lesson that had passed me by earlier in life.

My boy, my girl, if I forget to tell you, turn the car around.

Give Away the Empty Water Bottle

In February of 2005, I found myself on trip that forever changed my life. It was my first visit to Africa, and, in this case, I was travelling to Kenya. If a single trip could change a person, I think this was it. It helped me understand the vastness of our world, the diversity of the human experience and the day-to-day struggle that many millions face every morning they wake up.

Numerous memories and lessons came from this visit to the red soil of east Africa. They say once you visit this continent, a piece of it is forever in your heart. And I believe that, because it is in mine. One experience stands out above the others.

We were in western Kenya, just a few miles from the shores of Lake Victoria. The trip from Nairobi was a long one, passing through the great rift valley, the verdant green British tea fields of central Kenya and then finally arriving in the rural farming land of the Luo people.

As a typical westerner, we bought and drank bottled water throughout our trip. At any given time, we had half a dozen 2-litre bottles, and stopped to get more whenever we needed them. At this point in our trip, I was preparing to drive back to our hotel in Kisii. I wanted to clean out the all-terrain vehicle before we started our journey.

I gathered up several empty water bottles and started looking for a way to dispose of the trash. I was having difficulty finding a garbage can. Suddenly, an older lady walked over to me and started gesturing at me. At first, I didn’t understand what she was trying to convey. She couldn’t speak English. I finally figured out that she wanted the water bottles. As I handed them over, she showed tremendous gratitude.

As I wrote at the time, I was stunned. This dear lady wanted these empty bottles because they were a means for providing water for her family. She didn’t have running water in her home. No faucets, no pipes, nothing. She had to walk some miles to the local water source to get water. The more containers she had, the more she could bring back this basic need of life to her loved ones.

She had a simple need. And I didn’t see it. Instead, I was trying to discard my trash. This was a humbling moment for me.

How many times do we miss such obvious opportunities to help others? How often do we not see the opportunity to fully understand the needs of those around us? What do we have that could make a difference? Our time? Our attention? Even our smiles?

Many say that we should strive to walk in another’s shoes. I think I’ve discovered that’s not enough. I believe that we should try to live in their shoes. The more we think about exactly what the other person is thinking, the more we can serve. We will be more effective fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, coworkers, etc., if we live in their shoes.

It’s a two-step process. First, we should take the time to think and figure out what the other person needs. That takes effort, and deep thought. And, second, we should provide the need, whatever it may be.

The more you do this, the more it can become a way of life. A part of who you are. You can live with an awesome understanding of others. And people will love you for it.

Dear daughter, son, if I forget to tell you, find a way to give away the empty water bottle.