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28 Days of Inspiration – Day 22

Witold Pilecki Auschwitz Prisoner 4859

Unless you’re a particularly studious student of the second World War, you’ve not likely heard the name Witold Pilecki.  He was a Polish solider who was executed in 1948 for espionage and his story was largely supressed by the Polish government until 1989.  If you’re particularly astute, you’ll remember the Communist hold on Poland collapsed in 1989.

“The underground army was completely in disbelief about the horrors,” Storozynski explains. “About ovens, about gas chambers, about injections to murder people — people didn’t believe him. They thought he was exaggerating.”

NPR Story September 18, 2010

While his trial was largely a kangaroo court with a predetermined outcome, he after all WAS a foreign agent if you’re a 1940’s Stalinist – he remained loyal to the Polish government in exile – and given that the Stalinists did take over Poland for the better part of 50 years, if that had been all Pilecki had done I would still consider him to be an inspirational character; giving one’s life for the greater good while resisting injustice is always going to be a call for selflessness and to be better, which is a good reason despots wish to quash such rebellion.

But he had a greater role in the history of the 1940’s and indeed arguably saved the lives of millions of people.

Pilecki created a plan by which he would be incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp and would then report back what was happening. It was through his work the world outside the Nazi diaspora learned that these were in fact not internment camps, but rather death camps.  While he was there, he joined an underground movement, built a radio transmitter built from smuggled parts, reported to the Polish resistance what the camp was, number of prisoners, conditions, and more. After three years of backbreaking work, he managed to break out of Auschwitz, with documents stolen from the Nazis in his possession.

I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.

— After the announcement of the death sentence, Bartłomiej Kuraś, Witold Pilecki – w Auschwitzu z własnej woli, „Ale Historia”, w: „Gazeta Wyborcza”, 22 kwietnia 2013.

Consider that he was a highly skilled operative who used his skills to build morale among the prisoners, and to provide the Polish government the information it would need to first defeat the Nazis, then the Communists, with the hope of returning to power.  When it became clear that the post-war would not see the return of the exiled government, he was ordered to cease his information gathering on the Communists and escape – orders he declined and was ultimately arrested.   He was tortured, but never revealed information on his fellow operatives.

Clearly he was a patriot of Free Poland, but because of his heroism, the world learned of what was happening in Nazi Germany, and galvanized the world against such heinous acts…by volunteering to be imprisoned.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 21

Patrick Downes & Jessica Kensky and Adrianne Haslet-Davis 

On April 15, 2013 their lives changed.  While at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, then recently married and Boston area natives, Patrick and Jessica were there to enjoy the day.  It was that day they became victims of the Tsarnaev brothers first bomb in their bombing attack.

It was that day Adrianne fell victim to the second bomb in the attack, opening her eyes to find her left ankle and foot missing. A professional dancer, she was looking at her life’s work and direction irrevocably changed in an instant

This year they demonstrated ridiculous resilience when Patrick became the first marathon bombing survivor to come back to the race and finish it on foot.  Through it all, Patrick and Jessica have stayed together and become stronger.  Three years after the attacks, Jessica is still undergoing surgeries. He’s lost a leg.  She’s a double amputee.  This is still a fresh wound for them both. Adrianne also lost a leg and took up running because of her injuries – not in spite of them.

usa-athletics-boston-marathon

Patrick raising his arm to approach the finish line.  From the NY Daily News.

Patrick didn’t know it, but he finished the race at just about the time the bombs first went off that fateful day completing the race in 5:56:46

“[When I first started] learning how to use the blade, I made a pact with myself that I would at least try to run. I [thought], ‘Gosh, this blade is so difficult to use,’ so I decided to make it a challenge that I would overcome.” Adrianne Haslet-Davis 

Adrianne too was at the 2015 Boston Marathon, as a dance performer at the finish line.  This year it took her about 10-hours to run her race. Less than a year after the bombing, she performed on Dancing with the Stars.  From the beginning she knew she was in for a challenge.  She accepted it, and worked on advancing.  She did not quit.

Neither were runners previously but have used their life experience.  All of them could have easily succumbed to the ease of “giving up.”  They could have easily have made excuses for themselves, to feel sorry for their condition, to allow themselves to hate the Tsanaevs for what had happened to them.

When you focus on hate, you don’t allow yourself to grow, to change, to rise above.  All three of these people have risen to become more powerful, more inspirational than they were before.  Patrick was running to raise money – $250,000 – to fully endow a scholarship for disabled students.  Adrianne was running to raise money for Limbs for Life, a charity for providing prosthetics for those who cannot afford them.

There is nothing routine about completing a marathon.  There is nothing routine about experiencing life changing circumstances, and resolving to accept the challenge.  There is nothing routine about accomplishing goals and then setting them higher.  It takes mental fortitude, resilience, and commitment.  And ANYONE can do it, but not everyone does.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 20

Daniel Kish and his parents

Daniel was born with retinoblastoma – cancer of the retina – and by the time he was 13-months old, he had both eyes removed.  From the time he was very young, he relates in a profile of him on the TED Radio Hour on NPR, he says his parents expected he would be self sufficient, and allowed him to explore the world in ways that made sense for him.  He eventually became expert at “seeing” through a variation of echolocation – a system of clicks he makes with his mouth, that upon bouncing off targets lets him know how big an object may be or how close it may be.

Kish believes that echolocation produces images similar to sight, and allows the visually impaired to transcend the expectations of society. You can watch his TED talk here.

He’s an amazing person without question.  He’s taken his skills and used them to make the world a better place for many sight-impaired and blind people, but for fully sighted folks as well.  He’s made it his life calling.

But in listening to his story, I think of his parents.  Imagine being told your baby has retinal cancer and has to have his eyeballs removed.  To have the personal strength to impose your expectations on him that he will contribute to society, he will have his own life.  That you expect that he will develop his own tools to navigate the world, and that he will live on his own. From those expectations, and humble beginnings, he’s built the World Access for the Blind – an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for freedom and sensory perception for blind people.

And then, to have those expectations come to fruition.  His parents never tried to dissuade him from clicking, perhaps not knowing what he was doing, but allowing him to be himself.  And because they didn’t fall victim to the allure of being helicopter parents, to keep him “safe” from the world, they gave him every opportunity to succeed in it.

So this is inspiration at two levels: a family with every opportunity to keep their loved one “safe” and wallow in their (and their child’s) bad luck, and instead pushed him to reach his potential; and Daniel who took his good fortune of having been born to the right family and using his gifts to enrich the lives of others.

Sometimes the story of amazing people doing good work, is more about the story of the even more amazing people standing behind them.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 19

New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft was part of a program initiated in 2001 and was launched on January 19, 2006 to begin its approach and fly by  of the Pluto system some nine years later on January 15, 2015.  On July 14, 2015 it began it’s exploration of the dwarf planet, and this past week, 469 days hence on October 25, 2016 its final images of the July 14 exploration was received by NASA.

Some 50-Million gigabits of data from New Horizons have now traveled the 3.1-Billion miles back to Earth. Consider that: 50-Million giabits of data is the equivalent of 6.25-Million Gigabytes.  Your couple year old notebook computer may have a 500-GB harddrive.

Consider the possibilities: For the first time in Human history, we’re seeing up close pictures of a terrestrial body more 3-Billion miles away from us.  On that July day in 2015, something built on and launched from our little planet Earth soared 7,750 miles above the dwarf planet Pluto taking pictures.  The distance between Boston and New Delhi, India is a little less than 7200 miles.  New Horizons was about the radius of our planet away from Pluto.

Why Pluto?

Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, “third zone” of our solar system. In the early 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general – and Pluto-Charon in particular – among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for the coming decade. New Horizons is NASA’s mission to fulfill this objective.

We’ve learned Pluto is far more complex an environment than we’d imagined.  Pluto and Charon combine into a “binary system,” and while relatively common in the galaxy, we’d never explored one.  We have more information that suggests is more water ice on Pluto than we had thought and we know that the red cap at the north pole of Charon is trapped methane gas.

When I was growing up, I thought of Pluto as this strange, far flung rock of a planet, perhaps not unlike the Star Wars ice planet of Hoth.  My boyhood imagination was captured by space and the thoughts of space travel.  That there may be other worlds on which to put our feet down.  We are still years, decades away perhaps, from landing a man on Mars – a grave disappointment for a middle aged man growing up with thoughts of intergalactic travel – but it’s so incredible to me to be able to see photographs of a planet so far away.  It makes it so concrete and real that in this age of almost instantaneous communication that it could take over a year to send images from one place to another.

NASA describes this data as a treasure-trove.  I submit its far greater than that; I submit that it is the cause of generations of people to look toward the sky and dream of what still further treasures lie beyond that 3.1-Billion miles waiting to be seen by us.

 

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 18

Principles of Unitarianism

500px-flaming_chalice-svg1I’m not much a follower of organized religion and I’ve generally stayed away from discussing religious figures over the previous 17 days of inspiration – the world doesn’t need another list of inspiration including Jesus Christ or Mohammad.  What I believe the world does need, though, is to draw inspiration from multiple sources, multiple perspectives, multiple beliefs. Perhaps a little more understanding of each other and a little less posturing.  In disclosure, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Unitarian church.  I simply appreciate their teachings.

The UUA does not use dogma nor a specific creed.  Indeed, they’re more interested in the principle of freedom of thought than having these things, but they do use seven principles that are meant to guide their congregations:

  • The Inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The message I read in these principles is to be the best person you can be, whether or not that means being a Unitarian or not.  Consider what the world might look like if more people were interested in a search for meaning and truth than in pushing their truth and meaning on others; where compassion would be the guiding principle instead of righteousness.

In an age where we can be so divided, I am heartened to believe that others seek congregation and justice and am inspired to be more than what I may currently be by virtue of others seeking truths as well – even if they’re not my truths.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 17

Paul Baran

baran

Paul Baran  ibiblio.org/pioneers/baran.html

Paul Baran was an immigrant, an engineer, and a really bright guy.  He joined the RAND Corporation in 1959 and by the account in Walter Issacson’s The Innovators was still trying to figure out what was his life’s mission.

As he was looking through military requests for products, he seized upon building a communication system capable of surviving a nuclear strike and realized that successful completion of such a system could actually avoid nuclear war, by reducing the likelihood of a first strike.  Follow the logic:

If either the US or USSR believed that war was imminent, they may be inclined as to strike first to knock out communication hubs of the other to avoid their communications from being struck.  In other words, he realized the most important strategic element in a catastrophic war would be means of communication.  If there was a system capable of surviving a strike, or strikes, then one side or the other would be less likely to preemptively attack to avoid their communications being cut.

At this time, American military communications used high frequency connections which could be put out of action for many hours or permanently disabled by a nuclear attack. Baran realized that a distributed relay node architecture – one where messages were broken up into pieces, sent along different routes and pieced back together – would created a system that would not be easily disrupted and would be scalable.

How visionary was this?  Consider this anecdote from the Rand Corporation website:

In an interview with Wired magazine, Baran discussed his vision of how the new technology might be used. “Around December 1966, I presented a paper at the American Marketing Association called ‘Marketing in the Year 2000.’ I described push-and-pull communications and how we’re going to do our shopping via a television set and a virtual department store. If you want to buy a drill, you click on Hardware and that shows Tools and you click on that and go deeper.”

Now, I said he was a pretty bright guy, and to wit, it took some time to conceive, test, and demonstrate proof of concept but that was accomplished by 1960.  He spent the better part of the 1960’s trying to convince industry of the idea.  Sometimes entrenched interests are harder to conquer than technological challenges.

This work basically set forth the structure under which data – think email – is distributed through the modern internet today.  Baran helped set the building blocks of how we get work accomplished today with his desire to stop nuclear annihilation.  Consider for a moment how important this would have been to someone who emigrated from Poland – then controlled by the Soviet Union and indeed the part of Poland from which he came had actually been annexed by the Soviet Union and is today part of Belarus.

Indeed his personal mission was so important to him that he resisted efforts to have his work classified because in his conception, it would work best if the Soviets had technology that would ensure their communications remained in tact as well.  No one would have an incentive to launch a first strike.

Baran stands, to me, for the power of one person taking stock of his talents and knowing where his moral compass lies and finding a connection in the two.  Sometimes, just sometimes, having a larger meaning leads to amazing things.  Over a half century later, his work (and the work of others to be sure) allows you to communicate instantly across the globe, but could arguably have prevented nuclear war as well.  Consider that for a bit.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 16

The Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired “Team With A Vision,” Tina Luce and Helen Forte.

The organizations I’ve chosen to highlight to this point, the O’Connell Valor Fund and the New England Spahtens’ “Rucksgiving,” are small organizations with no overhead spreading inspiration and good works by sheer force of individual volunteerism.  The MAB on the other hand is a larger organization, but the “Team With A Vision” program demonstrates what their mission is right down to the core – empowering those with disabilities to accomplish their goals.  It turns out, though, that the program does more than empower those with disabilities.

Team with a Vision pairs vision impaired runners with sighted partners to assist them in running road races, of specific note the Boston Marathon but other races as well.  The case stories are incredibly empowering.

Consider the case of Tina Luce.  She started running with a timer and a treadmill, and when paired with a sighted partner to run with her, she was able to complete a recent 10k. For Helen Forte, her partner, it gave the opportunity to make a difference.  It’s this pairing of needs and interests that creates such a powerful combination.  What could possibly be more powerful than enabling anothers’ independence to meet their goals?

I’m such a fan of programs and organizations that work in this way, giving back in equal measure to those the program is designed to assist and those who do the assisting; they enrich the lives of all who participate.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 15

Rucksgiving and the New England Spahtens

Over the past year, I made a commitment to myself that I was going to run 50 Obstacle Races by age 50…which then morphed into 46 Races in 2016 for my 46 years…which has again morphed into getting as many done this year as I can.  As part of this evolution, I’ve connected with some wonderful people along the way, see here Joel Chavez the man representing Day 3 of the 28 Days.

One group which which I’ve connected is the New England Spahtens, a local obstacle course racing (OCR) enthusiasts team that has over time morphed (not unlike my race list, nor would that be coincidental to my own list) into other races, fitness activities, and social events.  After all, it’s a team, right?

OCR is an interesting community.  It’s designed as an individual challenge, but we’re social animals and want to engage these pursuits with other similarly minded folk.  I’ve noticed several “teams” of this kind in various places: joining is optional, there are no membership fees, no one gets cut, be as active or passive as you want.  If you want to register for a race, but the team hasn’t been formed, form it.  You can confidentially register for a race, join/create the team and you’ll have the support of others even if you don’t know them.  They’re there to support you, perhaps help you over an obstacle with the sole purpose of sharing the sport and making it accessible to as many as who want to join.

For the past two years, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Spahtens marshal as many volunteers as they can, loaded with donations and carry  ruck sacks stuffed with the gear around a route through Boston to carry donations to the less fortunate. This isn’t an administratively heavy endeavor (read the blog post, linked to here – this is a general call to arms, some pre-planning, and general strategy on the fly).  There are no news crews covering the story, no administrative costs.  Just teams of people caring for others, while living the purpose of the group – health and fitness.  It’s a marriage of the mission and vision of healthy activity, and supporting others.  And it’s ridiculously inspirational.

 

 

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 14

Because I Said I Would

Alex Sheen  wanted to pay tribute to his deceased father — and that turned into an international non-profit movement. To memorialize his father, he passed out cards at his father’s funeral that said “because I said I would” and he encouraged friends and family to write down promises. “Just live by what you say” from mundane to life-altering commitments.  On his blog, he promised to mail 10 Promise Cards to anyone who asked for them. This turned out to be a very expensive endeavor (just paying for postage!).

He has distributed roughly 4.5 million Promise Cards in the past four years.  His movement has inspired individuals, organizations, schools and communities. It even brought one person to admit he had killed a man. His Promise Card simply said “‘I will take responsibility for what I have done…’ because I said I would.”Because I Said I Would tells the stories of people following through on the promises they made just because they said they would, albeit perhaps with a bit of inspiration from Mr. Sheen.

One of my favorite things is the TED Talks.  15 minutes or so of well crafted on point story telling.  Here are three such presentations from the Because I Said I Would website that preach the message.  Although my own commitment to building a better person this year was not influenced by his movement, we followed a similar path: we said we were going to do it, built a plan, and followed through just because we said we would.  While the 2016 World Series, one side representing Cleveland, represents the hope and aspirations of two cities, Alex represented three Cleveland women by walking the state of Ohio.

Sheen quit a successful & well-paying  management job in technology to pursue  the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept throughout the world.

28 Days Of Inspiration – Day 13

The 2016 World Series

Of the major sports in the United States, baseball is arguably the most storied.  The championship series is clearly the oldest of the major championships. I’ve discussed in this blog before that for sports fans, even perhaps non-sports fans as well, history matters.  The 1903 World Series was the start of America’s love affair with the game, and we’ve been watching the storyline in a few different incarnations more or less since…you know, except for 1904…and 1994.

We watched in 2004 as the Boston Red Sox improbably beat the New York Yankees in 7-games to advance to the World Series after going down in the series 3-0 to win their first World Championship since 1918.  The next year, the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series since 1917…of course, they had the opportunity to win the 1919 World Series, but there was this little gambling scandal and all.

This of course left two franchises with a World Series drought: The Cleveland Indians and the team from the Northside of Chicago, the Cubs.

Now, the Indians had the opportunity in 1997, taking a little upstart team from Florida into extra innings in Game 7, but in the end lost their bid on an RBI single. AS an aside, I remember listening to that game driving home from the 1997 MLS Cup Championship game in Washington DC.  If the Red Sox couldn’t break their curse, the Indians shouldn’t be able to, and lo, they weren’t.

The Cubs have had an even more tortured history with the baseball championship.  The lore includes the curse of the billy goat, curing the teams’ chances in the 1945 World Series…where they haven’t been since.

So here we are – 2016.  68 years since the Cleveland Indians won the World Series; 108 years since the Cubs were World Champions.  By the end of this series, one of these historic franchises will have broken a curse, will accomplish something that most people alive today have never seen and may perhaps launch a new dynasty.  In 2003, if you had told me after the Red Sox got bounced from the ALCS, that they will win three times in the next ten years, I wouldn’t have believed it.

The amazing story and the guaranteed heartache the fans of one of these teams will feel, the guaranteed elation, the feeling that nothing will remotely come close just cannot be over-estimated.  I know – I’ve lived that feeling as a Red Sox fan.  Cleveland and Chicago are both 4 wins away from erasing generations of disappointment and despair.

THIS is what inspiration looks like to me as a sports fan.  Generations coming together.  The common connections within these cities.  The comradery felt – even if it’s for ten days or so – has no equal, and is understood by only a few.  It’s a disappointing season for Yankees fans if they don’t win it all.  For fans of one of these two teams, it will be adulation.  For fans of both of these teams, it will be a season to remember.

And that to me is inspiring.