For past readers of my annual holiday note, this year’s letter will be different from all those of the past. No travelogue; no ‘I went here and I went there, bla bla, bla’. I’ve taught a Washington University course on introspection and reflection for the past 17 years and I thought I would share a rough transcription of the last ten minutes of this class. Apologies that it’s a little long.
“We began this course with Viktor Frankl and his life in a concentration camp, from his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning. I would like to end the course on a personal note to reinforce the central concepts we have studied. Until I was 38 years old I did not have a search for meaning. I was pretty self-centered, had a good job here at the university, worked hard, liked to travel and did a lot of it, and never gave much thought to finding a sense of meaning in my life. That all changed on March 13, 1985, when my daughter Chelsea was born. When my friends heard I was about to be a father they had one of two reactions: 1) I’m not sure this is going to be a good idea, or (and/or) 2) This should be interesting. This was fair; I didn’t know what to think or expect, either, and I certainly didn’t have any idea or concept of what I was getting into.
“As it turns out, March 13, 1985 was transformative for me. It was an epiphany. When Chelsea was born I felt an overwhelming sense of love and sense of responsibility toward her. I had an instant meaning and focus for my life – to try to be a good father. When Liza was born a little less than two years later this solidified for me that the reason I was on this planet was to give these two kids as much love and support as possible and to help them learn and grow into intelligent, thoughtful human beings. My co-starting a business and working at home was at least in part done so I could spend as much time as possible with Chelsea and Liza after a very divisive divorce that made everything more difficult.
“One of the things I thought important was to show Chelsea and Liza the world, to help them see other peoples and cultures in order to better understand their own and to recognize what advantages they had. So we traveled. By the time she was 21, Chelsea had been to 33 states and 25 countries on five continents. Liza made it to her seventh continent on her 17th birthday and spent 5 months as a high school exchange student in New Zealand. Travel was a wonderful part of our three-person family tradition and we all grew and learned as we saw the world. I felt very good about my life’s purpose – trying to be a good father.
“On June 8, 2008, my life changed again; Chelsea was diagnosed with cancer. On June 10, I moved to Seattle to take care of her. The next 10 months were total hell for Chelsea (and me) as she spent 86 days in the hospital, had 8 rounds of chemotherapy and three surgeries, was taken in an ambulance five times, was in intensive care for 11 days, threw up constantly and suffered from depression. And then, at age 24 on April 9, 2009, she died. Half of my reason for being died with her. Thank goodness for Liza.
“So…why am I telling you this horror story? Because it is the principles that we have discussed in this class that I have used to get me through the pain and grief. In this course we learned from Viktor Frankl that while we don’t always get to choose our circumstances, we do get to choose our attitude about how we are going to respond to those circumstances. We can choose to have a positive attitude, even in the worst of situations. From Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence we learned that we are all in charge and control of how we do our emotions; even sadness, sorrow, suffering and grief. We can choose to sit in a corner and cry – as I did at first – or we can choose to move on in a positive, productive way and be intelligent about dealing with our emotions. From Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People we learned to be proactive in taking charge of how we are going to DO ourselves, going forward. I wanted to DO something positive in Chelsea’s memory, not just wallow around in dejection and self-pity.
“What I have done will not bring Chelsea back, but it has given me solace and focus and also has renewed my personal search/struggle for meaning. There have been six girls named to be ‘Chelsea Scholars’ at Webster Groves High School (WGHS) and all have received a college financial assist in Chelsea’s honor and memory. I meet with these girls twice a year to see how they are doing. Secondly, ‘The Chelsea Detrick Experiential Learning Center’ at WGHS was established five years ago and we had 160 kids this past summer do internships, travel, volunteer projects, etc. with a structure, framework and guidance to help them learn from their experiences. Separately, as of this October, we have awarded our first five Chelsea Scholarships to poverty stricken kids in rural Burkina Faso (Africa) so they can complete their high school education.
“Additionally, the Chelsea Education and Community Center (CECC) in Kathmandu, Nepal, survived devastating earthquakes last spring and is offering vocational, computer and life skills training to the kids of Nepal Orphans Home (NOH). We offer practical training in tailoring, computer hardware and programming, shoe making, etc. – areas in which the kids are likely to be able to find a job and a career. Also, as of this July, some of our older kids are now teaching literacy and English classes to mothers in the neighborhood who lack any formal education. We thought we would start with a pilot group of 15 mothers, but 122 signed up, so ‘Team Chelsea’ is working with them all. We recently received a major grant that will allow us to design and build the Chelsea Education and Community Center (we have been renting a building until now).
“If Chelsea had not lived her brief life, none of this would be happening. Thank you, Chelsea, for the inspiration and impetus you have given us to help the kids of Webster Groves and the kids of Burkina Faso and Nepal. Your memory is helping kids on three continents.
“So, class… what is the bottom line from all of this? I hope that you will take from Viktor Frankl, our other authors, and from my dealing with a personal tragedy the concept of personal empowerment – to choose your own attitude and relish the fact that you get to create who you are and determine your own future, whatever your circumstances – as you develop relationships, family and career. When you deal with adversity in your life, as certainly you will, keep it in perspective; whatever problems you encounter, you are capable of dealing with them. And be thankful that you are not in a concentration camp. Choose to deal with hardship as positively as you can. Remember and utilize the concepts from this course. Good luck.”
To all my friends in December 2015: I hope that you are doing well in your own search for meaning and in the creation of your own future and legacy. We’re not getting any younger!
Happy holidays and may peace be with you,
PS Abdoulaye and Celine are visiting again this December from Burkina Faso, and Liza from her new job with Apple in Curpertino, California. They are all doing wonderfully well. What joy!