A Prosecutor and A School Counselor Walk Into A Bar . . .

I write today in commemoration of Children’s Grief Awareness Month.

I met Ron Carrier in law school on the first day of orientation of our first year at the University of Missouri. When we met he told me that his parents and my grandparents were friends, that he’d grown up in the same area as my grandparent’s farm in rural Southwest Missouri. We quickly formed a study group and spent nearly every waking moment together that first year. I was in his wedding and he was without a doubt one of my very best friends. I am not sure I would have made it through law school without him and our other study partners.

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The Study Group Circa 1986: Dan Conlisk, Ron Carrier, David Mercer, Bob Waters and me

After graduation and a few years practicing law with a big firm in Texas I moved back home to Springfield, Missouri. I threw myself headlong into my passion of criminal defense work and Ron was a rising star prosecutor. We kept in touch but grew apart after law school. You know where this is heading, right? We were both warriors hell bent on winning. Over the ensuing years we tried to keep our friendship going but it was not working. I let my intensity and drive overcome the remaining threads of our friendship. I am sure it was one murder case too many. I was very aggressive (mean) and justified it by telling myself that it was for the greater cause of fighting for the underdog, the hunted, the accused. It culminated in him hanging up on me during an intense conversation about polygraph evidence in a stealing case. “Oh well”, I thought, “there goes another friendship sacrificed on the altar of ‘win at all cost.’” Ron was a fierce competitor, outstanding advocate, well prepared and perhaps one of only two prosecutors I feared. Our friendship was just starting to mend bit by bit because he was now an assistant attorney general no longer a front line prosecutor so our face offs were few and far between.

He called me one cold December afternoon as I was on my way home from work. He had cancer he said. It was in his brain. They will operate soon. The context for this bolt of lightning was that it was at the beginning phase of my search for something else. Something was stirring but I didn’t know what. When Ron said those words I did not know what to say. I was helpless. I asked questions but did not listen. I wanted him to know that I cared but did not know how to let him know that. In a word, I was “lost.”

I wanted to help Ron somehow but I was stuck. I was fresh off of Tuesdays With Morrie. That book changed my life. I have written about it extensively. I told my long time friend Dr. Karen Scott about it. At the time she was the Director of School Counselors for our public school system and already recognized as an expert in adolescent grief. Of course she’d already read the book. When we talked about the book at our local Panera Bread one day after church she told me that she wished there had been a grief center in our community when my father died when I was fourteen. I said that we need one now and she told me her dream of having one. We began work right away. And it started from that conversation at Panera. Within days of Ron’s call I called Karen and said I needed help with what I could say or do to help Ron. I went to her office at the school administration building. I did not pay her money but she was probably violating rules seeing me almost as a patient. She could, I think, sense my desperation.

During our first meeting she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Shawn, you cannot help Ron until you help yourself.” That was not what I wanted to hear. “Can’t you just give me some things to say or do to help Ron?” She instructed me to go home and find a picture of myself from the 8th grade, the age I was when my dad died of lung cancer. She wanted me to meditate on that picture and recall how tender I was at that age. She took it a step further. She wanted me to notice the next time I saw a young man of that age and really observe. It was career day at a local middle school where I got my full dose of 8th grade boys. It was hard to look and think back to those years of my father’s pain and my own. Karen was bringing me to a place of peace with my middle school self. Her final assignment: write a “goodbye” letter to my dad. This. Was. So. Hard. Then, she wanted me to read it to her in person in her office. Then I went to my dad’s grave at National Cemetery and read the letter out loud to him. Tears upon tears.

Karen’s work with me did three things. First, she helped me release some of the pain and set me me on a long and winding path of learning the language of grief. The language of broken hearts. Now 18 years later I’ve gained some fluency in this language that nobody wants to learn to speak. Second, she was right about being there for my friend Ron. I was imperfectly present for him in a way that would not have been possible without Karen’s intervention in my life. We met with our friend David Mercer (another friend from our law school study group) and we prayed for Ron in the evening at my office a couple of days before surgery. It was real. We were at the hospital for his surgery and after. I never accepted another case that might result in him on the other side. He’s now a judge. And I am happy to say that Ron is doing great all these later and so is our friendship.

Finally, Karen’s work with me pushed the urgency button on our work co-founding Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield. I had to do it. No other choice. Our first group met on the 3rd floor of my law office building in January 2001. In the past 19 years we’ve served thousands of children and families suffering the death of a loved one in a 23 county area in Southwest Missouri. All at no charge. I am still a volunteer facilitator in a teen group. Over and over the kids teach me what it means to be human. I would not have the chance to speak and learn the language of grief and heartbreak with these teenagers but for Dr. Karen Scott. I don’t have pearls of wisdom to share (and that’s not what we do anyway) with them but I am present in a way that I think they can sense. It would be impossible for me to express the amount of gratitude I have for this experience every other week. Karen is the driving force behind the healing of so many people, including me. Make no mistake: there would be no Lost & Found without Karen. For nearly 10 years Karen did all of this work as a volunteer until she retired early from the school system to lead the organization full time. She’s trained hundreds of volunteer facilitators, recruited group coordinators, and written all of our curriculum. And she helps people in our community with individual grief counseling. And for most of the years of our existence she raised the money to make it all possible.

Thank you Karen Scott. Thank you Ron Carrier. I am not sure where I would be without you both.

Digging deeper: Where does our pain go? Where do we put our broken hearts? I write about this in great detail in Chapter 1 of our book Meaningful Work. One answer to this question is that it goes everywhere. Our broken hearts go into our bodies physically, into our words, our thoughts, our friends and families. Is it possible for us to consider that the sorrow will one day be joy? That unimaginable pain and darkness can eventually put us on top of the highest mountain? That we might even glimpse heaven from that place on clear days? A prayer that I believe will always be answered in all cases 100% of the time is this: “Dear God, please open my heart and a door today for me to restore my friendship with____.” Try it and let me know.

 

Don’t End Up With Bitter Bread

A couple of weeks ago I bought myself a gift: Paesano bread from my good friends at Zingerman’s Mail Order. I have been enjoying this rare treat immensely, grilled on the Big Green Egg last night and toasted this Labor Day morning. I am reminded of one of my favorite poet philosophers Kahlil Gibran who said, “For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.” The same is true for chocolate! Or any product or service you provide. Work vocations provide meaning and purpose. Products or services created with intention, by people who feel they’re contributing toward a higher purpose, will undoubtedly be higher quality.

We’ve been working for over two years on one chocolate bar that we will release in mid-September. It’s a collaboration with our friends at Heath Ceramics. They’re a historic, iconic company in the design world. Heath shares similar values to our company. They believe in “human-scale”– they make everything they sell by hand, just like us. Their factory is small and they’re dedicated to true quality and craftsmanship. Their ceramics are most certainly not bitter. Similarly, It took two years to develop this chocolate bar because it needed to be just right. We’re making this chocolate bar with care, not indifference, and thus we aspire to the lofty goal that it feeds not half but “all of man’s [and woman’s] hunger.”

Making something “with care” does not mean the same thing to every employee. For some in our little company it means taking pride in the attention to every detail in the process from roasting the beans to texture of the chocolate. For others it means knowing that cocoa farmers are benefiting from making this chocolate. For others it means having a job. For some it means working with students in our neighborhood. All of the ways we bring care to what we make are inseparable from the finished product. Who we are and how we behave is inextricably linked to our chocolate and the same is true for your product or service.

Digging deeper: Read Chapter 2 of our book, “Meaningful Work: The Quest To Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, And Feed Your Soul,”  and learn why businesses need a vocation in order to survive.

Back From My 40th Origin Trip: A Reminder That I Am Alive

I just returned from leading a group of 15 local high school students to visit cocoa farmers in a remote Tanzanian village on Lake Nyasa in the shadow of the Livingston Mountains. Since 2010 this journey has been part of our Chocolate University program inspiring local students that business can be a force for good in the world. More importantly we give students an opportunity to receive radical hospitality.

On days when I am open and aware I know what it feels like when time stops and I am locked in the present moment. At this point I’ve experienced it enough times to know generally when it’s coming, a kind of warning that I am about to be reminded that I am alive. Usually it’s when I am not expecting it. As strange as it might sound I do not think we choose these moments, they choose us. I’d like to focus on just one from last week.

Nearly every time I’ve traveled to this spot in East Africa I have been a special guest at a graduation ceremony for Empowered Girls and now Enlightened Boys. Last week was no exception. Clocking in at 3 to 4 hours these ceremonies tend to be long by American standards. For some of these young women and men this might be one of the the most memorable days of their lives. It’s a big deal. Side note: we fund and staff Empowered Girls in the region. It was founded and continues to be managed globally by angel on earth Kellen Msseemmaa. We founded, fund and staff Enlightened Boys. Both programs teach self esteem, life skills, sex education and non-violence empowering and enlightening these young Tanzanians for a hopeful future.

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Last Sunday afternoon we walked up the foothills about a mile from the village center to the secondary school to attend the graduation ceremony. Nearly 500 students welcomed us with song as our group of American students arrived. We sat at the head tables, adorned with white tablecloths, as the guests of honor. It was hot with zero breeze. There was a meticulously placed bottle of Fanta, Coca-Cola, and water on the table in front of each of us. Lawren spoke on behalf of our group encouraging the young graduates and thanking them for their hard work and dedication. The village students worked hard for weeks in advance of our visit preparing skits and songs to mark the honor of this celebration.

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A group of about 30 young women from Matema Secondary moved to the front of this open air oversized classroom to sing a tribal welcome song in their native Nyakyusa dialect. It was a hauntingly beautiful call and response. I had literally no idea what they were saying but I did not need to know. That’s when it happened. Rapture. Time stopped. I did not need to speak Nyakyusa to know that God was speaking. Overwhelmed. What did He say? I have no idea. He was not speaking “to” me. I was an observer, a listener. I videoed part of the song and have played it at least 100 times since that day. Listening to the song over and over brings me right back to that place. I cannot even talk about it without becoming emotional. For a few days I struggled with why? I’ve been to many graduation ceremonies where songs and skits were performed. Why this celebration? Why this song? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I am aware of my limitations as a writer. Words are not available to me to describe what happened. In fact, my words are unimportant and I take comfort in that.

 

I quote Joseph Campbell in my book and he’s an expert on this topic so I’ll bring him into this conversation. He recounted to Bill Moyers in the now famous PBS interview series:

“My friend Heinrich Zimmer of years ago used to say, ‘The best things can’t be told,’ because they transcend thought. ‘The second best are misunderstood,’ because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about, and one gets stuck in the thoughts. ‘The third best are what we talk about.”

Here I am “talking about” this present moment of transcendence that probably only lasted a matter of seconds in reality. You see where my feeble attempt ranks in the order of understanding according to Campbell and I agree. Transcendent experiences remind us of our our true selves, who we are, that we are alive. The practice is not about finding the next transcendent experience. That would be tempting but unsustainable. Instead, it’s about pulling the thread of that experience forward into the stitches of our daily lives. My question now revolves around ways I can integrate that moment into my day.

I can look to Christ’s mother as the role model of integration. After the shepherds came to see her baby in the manger proclaiming the angel’s message “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” That’s enough for me. I treasure that moment of song and will ponder it in my heart for many days to come.

Digging Deeper: Reverse scale makes moments like this possible. I have a sense of what the practice of reverse scale feels like. It’s a practice we can use to discover and stay tethered to our true selves in life and business. For me it means that I led this trip with the students when I could have delegated it to someone else. Not scale but reverse scale which can also be called human scale. Read more about priming the pump of reverse scale in your life in Chapter 5 of my book.

 

Reverse Scale: It’s A Practice Not A Place

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We leave in three days for rural Tanzania with 14 local high school students in tow. They’re an elite group of students who competed to be part of our Chocolate University high school program. We launched the project in 2009 and have been taking students to Tanzania ever since. Hold that thought.

We write about reverse scale extensively in the book. What is it? It’s a practice of recognizing the value of not scaling. One of our beliefs, coined by Lawren, is that our vocation is not necessarily getting bigger but getting better at staying small. We’re conditioned by our business culture to believe that unless the idea is big and capable of rapid scale then it has little value. Can we take a step back and reconsider this dogma? Could we assess value even if our idea helps only one person or if it only transforms us? True sustainability lies within the answers to these questions. If more of us answered the call to action on the supposedly “small” ideas then imagine the kind of social problems the world could address.

We tend to think “more” and “bigger” will always be better, that somehow they will allow us to finally breathe easier when we arrive. The problem is that it’s often an illusion because we never really arrive at the place that’s just out of reach. Scale demands that every single person in the chain focus on what’s next and on finding someone to do the thing that’s now ‘below’ them in order to move themselves up. Anything less than that and you will lose the race for scale, because someone else is more focused than you.

Reverse scale could also be called human scale. It is in the smallness of one on one relationships that we find meaning because we’re not insulated from the pain and sorrows of these connections. We tend to lose this when we’re so focused on scale and growth.

Could we have scaled Chocolate University nationwide or worldwide by now? Probably. Perhaps I’d be managing (not leading) multiple trips a year with students from around the world to more than one destination. It would be possible to do that right alongside accelerated growth of my chocolate company. That’s scale!  Reverse scale, on the other hand, says, “This is it.” Today, right here, right now. This student, this cocoa farmer, this meal, this village. That’s all I really possess. There’s a lot of power in that. I know I’d lose these important human connections if I were managing, delegating, and looking at spreadsheets instead of practicing this discipline of reverse scale. It is this practice that allows me, at times, to experience my True Self as Thomas Merton calls it.

Back to the high school students I’ll be traveling with on Monday. When we arrive in remote rural Tanzania our students will be embraced by the village farmers as “members of the family” because we’ve been their partners for nearly a decade. We have a packed schedule of “doing” but have left ample time for “being.” In the coming days I will remain a student too as we’re welcomed by farmers who practice radical hospitality.

What Advice Would You Give Your Younger Self? [It’s not what you might think]

Since our book launched in November I’ve been a guest on about 35 podcasts sharing the story and message of Meaningful Work. On one of my first near the end of the show the host asked me “What advice would you give to your younger self?

The question gives us the chance to deeply reflect on things like regret, youthful anger, materialism, arrogance, strength, ego and the impact they have had in our lives. Would our younger selves listen to our advice from further ahead and take action or change course? Probably not. I am pretty sure I would not have listened. Is the advice given intended for the speaker/older version of us or the listener/younger ones? Perhaps it’s therapeutic for us to recount the long dead end trails we’ve traipsed down only to realize we’re mistaken and turn back. The laundry list of $hit we wish we wouldn’t’ have done or said might be long; it is for me.

When you’re asked this question on a panel, for an article, or in my case a podcast then the intention is: what advice would you give younger listeners? That’s the heart of the question.

I took the question literally. I answered it not as if I was writing a letter to younger me. I answered the question as if I encountered him, the younger me. As I was answering this question I placed the image of this meeting in my mind. I saw myself walking up to young me and not sure why but I’d place the young me in my early 30s. I saw him recognize me and smile. I could see him breathing from his shoulders as he stood there with great confidence.

I told the interviewer I would not give my younger self any advice at all.

I was only a few feet from the younger me in my picture and could sense his heartache and fears. I knew that some anxiety and depression would be just around the corner. I realized that words would fail in this moment. When I pictured the scene in my mind any advice seemed like a successories motivational poster.

I said, in reply to the question, I would give the younger me an uncomfortably long hug and let him know how much I love him. He would want to pull away but I would hold on tight. That’s it. No advice. No expectation. Just love and imparting the mystery of life in my embrace.

When I concluded my short response I felt a sense of right question, right answer, right time in a way that I cannot fully describe. A kind of warmth as if I’d just done what I said I would do if it really happened. I felt good about my reply and that’s not often the case.

I write all of this today not to recount the story but hoping that you might find this useful as a meditation exercise. After that podcast interview I thought it might be interesting to try this as a meditation one morning after my prayers and it was powerful.

Try closing your eyes, focusing on your in and out breaths. Then let your mind see you as you are now however old you are. You’re slowing walking towards the younger you. Eyes still closed, still breathing, you see each other. What age is she/he? You sense the heartache and fears of the younger you. Breathe that in and out for a bit. Then give your younger self a big wholehearted hug. A long one and don’t let you pull away. Quietly, tell that younger you that you love him or her. Keep breathing and let that scene stay as long as you’d like. That’s it, nothing fancy but quite possibly very powerful.

 

When Your Car Breaks Down There Are Three Kinds of People

I bought a used Toyota 4Runner on Monday afternoon from a good friend I’ve known since high school who owns a car dealership here in Springfield. I totaled my other Toyota two weeks ago in my own driveway after an ice storm when a tree hit my car. I drove to work Tuesday morning looking forward to our staff huddle at 9am. About two miles from our chocolate factory at one of the busiest intersections in the city during rush hour, my 4Runner died. No power, nothing. I check all of the gauges to see what might be wrong. Really?! “I’ve got things to do, people to meet, and places to go,” I said to myself. “Crap, cars are barreling towards me from all directions and I can’t move this thing.” “Where are the hazard lights in my less than 24 hour old ride?” I ask myself. Ok, found them. Now most people are angry. I decide to get out, carefully, and lift my hood not because I have a clue about what’s under it but to signal that it’s not going to be moving anytime soon. I call my friend who I bought the car from and he says he will be there quickly from the other side of town. He feels terrible about it.

I knew I was going to miss our staff huddle and we were supposed to cover a really important topic. I felt terrible that I was in everyone’s way. I just sat there with no place to go with time to watch and think. There were three kinds of people I encountered: those who drove on by maneuvering around me making their way to their own huddles or whatever, angry people who honked and flipped me off, and then there were people who stopped to ask me if they could do something to help. Honestly, in my younger days I might have been in group number two but in my older years I am probably squarely in group one. I am the person would have driven right on by the guy in the 4Runner probably not even seeing him as I listened to my podcast on “enlightened ways to serve the world.”

I noticed a common thread in the third group, those who stopped to offer help. They were nearly all driving run down beat up trucks and cars with bumper stickers that announce a variety of political persuasions I might not agree with. In fact, while listening to the aforementioned podcast I might have even noticed those bumper stickers and scoffed or judged the drivers as losers. Person after person in this group stopped or slowed, rolled down their windows and asked if they could help me. A side note here to quickly dispense with the notion that sometimes stopping to help may not be safe. Why would the people in this third this group so readily try to help me? It’s because they saw themselves in my distress. They’ve been where I was, stranded, needing help from a stranger.

This roadside breakdown really taught me a lot. I want to change. I don’t want to be the person that “drives on by” not seeing those around me in need in my town, on my street, in my company, in my own family. I want to see the hoods up, the signals of distress, and stop to offer help. Who am I to judge the content of a person’s character by the brand or condition of their car, their clothing? Or even the bumper stickers they might display. I am embarrassed by my surprise of who came to my assistance. I have a lot to learn and am thankful for this lesson.

 

Changing Careers: When You’re Taken Down A Few Notches

There are many things to consider when thinking about changing careers. I wrote an entire book about it but today I want to talk about something not in the book: changing careers and the loss of apparent power that goes with it.

I am not talking about changing jobs as you approach the pinnacle of your career moving from one company to the next and staying in finance or marketing or whatever. I am not talking about changing specialities within your industry such as moving from thoracic to plastic surgery. I am talking about moving from the industry in which you’ve spent years, perhaps decades, building a career to an industry that is completely and radically different in which you have zero experience. For the sake of discussion, let’s say you’re a criminal defense lawyer, making great money, winning year after year, and then it hits you. Continuing with our story, you don’t love it anymore and you give up your thriving law practice and start a bean to bar chocolate factory with your life savings. It happens all the time; the CEO who becomes a motorcycle mechanic.

There are volumes of inspirational messages about giving it all up and changing careers after years of success (I define that term at length in the book but here’s a hint: it’s not money and a million followers on Instagram) so we can follow our dreams. None of them, however, talk about swallowing pride, starting over, and enduring relative humiliation.

When I was a hard charging lawyer people returned my calls and now, not so much. When I called courthouses, police departments, other lawyers or pretty much anywhere that my reputation preceded me I was transferred to whomever I was calling or they called me back pronto. That’s just one tiny example. When I was a lawyer winning cases and making lots of money people seemed to respect me, many might have admired my work, and some people were afraid of me. Even now, nearly twelve years in to my chocolate career I could call a buyer at fill in the blank store where we’d like to do business and I am chopped liver to be certain. Back in my other career I often got what I wanted.

During the time I was searching for a new career that inspired me I knew that I would be making less money, a lot less money in my new yet to be determined career. I didn’t really think that much about losing apparent power because nobody told me about that and I guess I was not smart enough to figure it out on my own. I knew the money part was something I could handle. It’s black and white budgeting, straightforward, a spreadsheet.

Feeling small and insignificant after years of feeling important is a winding road of emotion that never really ends. This is also called humility. It is not something we “do” actively but instead it happens to us whether we seek it or not. Most of the time I am grateful for this smallness, consider it a gift and make it a practice. I don’t have it all figured out by any stretch. But some days I see glimpses of my true self when I recognize that it’s in my smallness that I am most connected to humanity and able to see Divinity. There is dignity in smallness that I didn’t see years ago. I am not suggesting that smallness and humility always feel good but the discomfort is outweighed by truth and beauty that I probably missed in the old days.

Maybe You Need An Elder Not A Mentor

I’m not sure where my chocolate business would be without a handful of mentors along the way who helped me avert danger and land safely time after time. Lately I’m thinking that having a mentor is not enough in business or life. Yes, we need mentors to help us navigate fill in the blank practical aspect of our business. But, maybe what we really need is one or more elders deeply rooted in our lives, and us in theirs, over a span of years.

What initiated my thinking on this are the elder farmers I’ve seen in rural Tanzania over the past decade, how they interact with others in the village, in cocoa cooperative meetings, and in family settings. Want to understand village mindedness? Watch the elders. During cocoa cooperative meetings the elders sit up front. They often speak first in meetings. When we have chocolate tastings they are first to taste. This is true for both men and women elders. I see younger farmers act with gentleness and patience toward elders who, at first glance, might not appear as “contributing” to the group. I’ve noticed the real “contribution” is not from these elders who have trouble walking, talking or even thinking clearly but it is the way in which younger members of the group behave toward these people who were once vibrant and now need them. In other words, this is an opportunity for the younger ones to exercise compassion and give dignity to those who need it.

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From the right, Tanzanian cocoa farmer elders Anderson Mwaliambwile, Ambikile Mwandalima, me, Rainald Mwakimbwala

Let’s swing the bus back around and point the discussion toward my hometown and yours.

What is an elder? An elder is not achieved by merely being old. It is an earned status that begins with many years in the rear view mirror. An elder has garnered wisdom and humility along the way. This is also true in Tanzania where age alone does not bestow the qualities that make other members sit up and take notice when they speak. Age alone does not an elder make. An elder is someone who’s been through some stuff, lots of stuff, and yet they still stand. They don’t hide their scars and even celebrate imperfection. An elder is not necessarily someone who achieved great notoriety in the community but perhaps notoriety on your street. An elder’s smile is creased with practice and their words are measured and kind. Even though they sometimes cannot see or hear perfectly you are drawn to them, you want to be close to them.

Why might you need an elder in your life? A mentor can tell you if you should expand your facility location or where to find a better deal on credit card merchant rates or if you should pay for business interruption insurance. An elder can tell you what it’s like when you might not have the money to meet payroll, what it’s like to grieve the death of a spouse or child, what loneliness feels like, or why walking everyday is important. They’ve struggled through darkness, been to the mountaintop, returned and want to tell you about it. Over time an elder will get to know you and feel free to speak with a directness that might feel unfamiliar. You will come to appreciate it even though it might be uncomfortable at first. You will also discover how open hearted you are in conversation with this person because guess what? They don’t care how many likes your last picture got on Instagram. They help us understand that embracing mystery, not pushing it away, is critical over the long haul of finding joy in our lives. We need elders in order to gain their wisdom, learn how to soften our edges and put life into perspective.

We also need relationships with elders so we can serve them when they need us even for the little things. A time will come when we can give something back to them as they start to see home a little more clearly ahead in the front windshield. This is mutuality.

Where are you going to find such a person? They’re all around you in churches, temples, fitness centers walking around the track, neighbors. Some you might know well enough to call and ask if you can meet for a cup of coffee. I promise if you look you will find one or more elders who will be more than happy to take you under their wing. If your standard is Gandalf or Mother Teresa then you’ve missed the point. Make it your intention, your prayer that elders cross your path that you can talk to, learn from, and someday serve. I am certain it will happen. If all else fails, ask your mentor if he/she can introduce you.

You can read more about how elders have influenced my life in my new book Meaningful Work.

There’s A Deep Deep Sorrow In Some Cocoa Beans: So What Should We Do?

The market price of cocoa beans has remained unchanged in the last 30 years when adjusted for inflation.(1) Wait. What? Read that sentence again. And to make matters worse the world market price these days is dramatically low. As low as I have seen it in years. That’s great news for Big Cocoa (the 8 or so companies the buy the majority of cocoa in the world). But the low price of that cocoa bean–and consequently the chocolate–is on the backs of struggling cocoa farmers who are living on less than $2 per day. It’s akin to modern day slavery, a sort of neo-slavery, but sophisticated because of obtuse supply chains. In other words, Big Cocoa has plausible deniability.

DSCF3724In recent years Big Cocoa has implemented many social programs from schools to clinics to improved farm yields to reforestation initiatives. This is not “social washing,” because these projects are probably real. They have long names that usually end in a year; something like “Sustainable Cocoa 2030.” There are so many projects and initiatives for this, that, and the other that it’s impossible to keep track. I read about them every day in industry newsletters. That means the PR firms for Big Cocoa are cranking out press releases announcing Big Cocoa to the rescue. Then come the cool PowerPoints. In reality, X program might make a terrible life a little more bearable, slightly more human. But it’s as if these projects and programs are designed to keep us from remembering that many cocoa farmers are living a subhuman existence. To be clear, I am speaking mostly of the farmers in West Africa. The farmers are beholden to Big Cocoa, with no choices, no power, no voice. Big Cocoa indirectly controls the market price. The farmers were already in the depths of poverty which is only made worse by the terribly low world market price of cocoa this year.

It’s a worthwhile endeavor to look at the simple math supporting this proposition that these farmers are unbearably poor. The World Cocoa Foundation states that the average cocoa farmer has between two and four hectares (five to ten acres), yielding between 300 and 400 kg per hectare in Africa. Here is the breakdown: assume our West African farmer has 3.5 hectares (conservatively)  and that his yield is 450 kg per hectare. That means the farmer has 1,575 kg yield on his farm. The world market commodity price has been hovering around $2 per kg. This means that the total yield on the farm of 1,575 kg (if the farmer’s buyer received the world market price) multiplied by $2 would equal $3,170. But, our farmer (in the case of Ghana) will only receive 70% (or less) of the world market price. The other money (30% or more) is siphoned off in a highly complex government controlled buying system. This reduces our farmer’s income on these cocoa beans to $2,205 annually. When we divide that number by 365 days in the year, that puts him or her at $6.04 per day. The way we look at these numbers, however, is by dividing yet again by the average number in the household. In this case it’s 6, so our farmer and family are living, somehow, on $1 per day. The United Nations defines “extreme poverty” as less than $1.25 per day and “poverty” is below $1.90 per day. If the world market price was at $3 per kg as it was 12 months ago, then our farmer’s per capita income would be $1.51 per day assuming the other variables as true in my example. You see where I am headed with this?

DSCF3510Message to Big Cocoa: you really want to help cocoa farmers? Four words. Pay. Them. More. Money. And make sure it gets to the actual farmers. “Not that simple,” you say. The truth is that it is. “We would sacrifice too much profitability,” you say. Not likely. All of us in the industry understand the other variable costs and the effect higher prices paid to farmers will have on margin. I understand that it’s in your financial interest and thus your duty to shareholders to not only control the price of cocoa but keep it low (but not so low that it threatens your supply). If consumers are eating a cheap chocolate bar there’s probably a reason it’s so cheap and it’s not because the manufacturer is the most efficient company in the world. Big Cocoa has the power to give freedom to many cocoa farmers by simply paying them more money.

You might be thinking, “Why would Shawn care since they don’t buy beans from West Africa?” Over the last eleven years, we’ve paid our farmers, on average 48% more than they would have otherwise received at their farm gate and we’ve documented it here for our customers to read and review. Why? Well, we do it for our customers and to hold ourselves accountable. We want to constantly assess how we can do better. Our system of profit sharing and opening our books to the farmers in their native language is good but it’s not perfect. The system of cocoa bean buying in Ghana is so complicated that I gave up after two years of really trying to deep dive into the intricacies and crack the code. I don’t quit easily but it was just too byzantine and government controlled in Ghana to fit our model of direct trade. But, we at Askinosie Chocolate, should not let ourselves off so easily. We are part of the larger world of chocolate, even of chocolate made from beans on the backs of struggling farmers we’ve never met in West Africa. Joseph Campbell says we are called to, “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” What’s “the world”? Well, that depends. Right now, to me, it means the world of cocoa beans. I often talk and write about the juxtaposition of sorrow and joy and the mysteries of both. I am at a loss though to find joy in this story. A story in which I see nothing but pain, powerlessness, silence, hunger.

I suppose then I am called to create the joy in this saga. I can think of two things that will help. First, please consider buying good chocolate this Valentine’s Day for the ones you love. Might I suggest some others than us, such as Dandelion Chocolate, French Broad Chocolates, or Harper Macaw to name a few? I am certain you will not be disappointed. There are many more. I ask that you search us out, try us and engage with us to change the channel on Big Cocoa. Second, I am not suggesting that you never buy another Snickers Bar but I am hoping that you will look into the issues I raise here and perhaps apply your mindfulness muscle to ask yourself if it is a good or bad idea to support Big Cocoa with your hard-earned money.

Footnotes

1. The commodity price of one metric ton of cocoa beans in 1985 was $2,342.19. In today’s dollars that would be $5,187.56, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator. The price today for one metric ton is roughly $2,000.

Go Low

Let’s go low. In my book I call it “reverse scale” and you can read all about it, the temptations of scale luring us from all sides, and why we might want to consider alternatives to “grow or die.” You have an idea? Everyone wants to know “will it scale?” suggesting that an answer in the negative diminishes its value. I suggest turning the scale pyramid upside down and propose that we ask ourselves “will this project or idea help just one person, or perhaps will it change me?” What do I mean by “go low”? You’ll see in the next paragraph. I try to use reverse scale to keep me tethered to my vocation. My trip this past week in the Philippines sourcing our cocoa beans is an example and one I would add to others in the book. I use this practice to return to my true self, to reorient my soul and point it in the right direction. Toward meaningful work. 

The setup to my story is best illustrated in two of my Facebook posts.

Facebook Post – January 2016 -One final picture from my trip this past week to Davao: this church. It’s across the road from one of the small cocoa farms we work with. Dirt floor, wooden benches, drum set, guitar and an amp. The poverty surrounding the church would break your heart. It did mine. I’ve probably seen 100 churches like this. Without fail, I am always moved when I step inside. No exception this week. Something happened inside the church and I will write about in greater detail later. Jesuit Priest and author Father Greg Boyle talks about meeting Jesus in “low places.” This place was one of those and I’m thankful to have experienced it.

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The church in 2016
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Justin and his sister in the church – 2016

That’s what I mean by “go low.” I remind myself to seek out the low places so I can have the greatest chance of encountering the Divine.

Facebook Post – January 2017 – Back from Davao with one final post . . . His name is Justin. The little boy in the center holding the ball. He will be 4 in September. I met him last year on my trip to Davao. I’ve seen a lot of poverty over the years up close and personal here at home and abroad. There are times, albeit fewer than you’d imagine, when someone catches your eye and breaks your heart. One reason that it doesn’t happen more frequently is that I might just be a heap of tears on the ground if I let it penetrate me more often. So I see tragedy and move on. Not with Justin. He lives across the street from a farmer where we buy beans. I happened to stop at a tiny church about 20 feet from his “house” last year. I saw him when I got out of the truck. Justin had a distended belly, bulging eyes, a gunky runny nose, no clothes on, no parent around just siblings. He was clearly sick and extremely malnourished. For some mysterious reason he looked at me and in a split second I connected with him. A few minutes later I was in the nearby empty bamboo church with a dirt floor and turned around and there he was sitting on the pew with his sister. It kind of freaked me out. It was almost as if he just appeared there. I went about my business touring the farm across the road but could not get him out of my mind.

One of my hosts, Mimi, agreed to look in on him for me and help me. I came home and my friend Dr. John Waites  did a Skype “exam” of Justin. It was made possible by Mimi bringing Justin and mom to a decent internet connection. We then bought him a bunch of fortified infant formula which mom agreed to make sure he received. One of our employees, Dina, was traveling home to Davao the following month. She brought him a ton of Dr. Kerri Mcdaniel Miller‘s wonderful re:iimmune product. Mimi continued to check on him and he was improving.

I brought him a little t-shirt and plastic ball and more infant formula. He loved that little ball and would not let it go. The bottom line is that he is much improved. It’s true that he is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of children, within a few mile radius in the same circumstance. So why him, why only help him? Well, the only thing I can say is that he looked at me and somehow pierced my heart unlike anyone else on any of my other trips. In some ways, upon reflection, I think it was God looking at me through Justin’s eyes.

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Justin and his siblings during my 2017 visit 

I saw him for a 3rd time this past week. He lives just a couple of miles from Baguio Central Elementary where our school lunch program will be starting its 3rd year soon. It’s also just a few minutes away from our cocoa bean fermentation and drying facility. One tiny experience in 2016 in this remote place on the planet has provided me with a thread that I can hold on to and use to keep coming back to sew one more stitch in the patch of who I am, my true self.

Justin continues to improve. There are still some health issues but without a doubt he’s getting better and better. I brought him a few gifts this week that I am sure he will share. Also bought him some more fortified milk.

A common way to see this story is the almost unbearable recognition that the destitute poverty in this place is so overwhelming that the insurmountability of it leaves us paralyzed. We think to ourselves “I want to do something, but it’s too much” and defeated we do nothing. We conclude that it’s so desperate that helping one person might even be wrong because “what about the others?” You see all of Justin’s siblings in the photo and they are just as deserving of any tiny help I might offer.

Remember, I have not purchased food for life for Justin, I did not find his family a new house, I did not offer to pay for his college, I did not do anything monumental. What I did do is visit him three years in a row after his eyes locked on to my heart. In doing this little thing year after year I am sending this message to Justin and perhaps his family: I see you, I care about you.

Jean Vanier, Catholic theologian, author, and founder of L’Arche, the international federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks for people who have intellectual disabilities, would have something to say about this. He would say that in the face of this sorrow we can go deeper within ourselves in silence and solitude to become men and women of peace. In other words, these real life human experiences cause us to deepen our own interior lives which bring about change in us. He points out that in the seeming hopelessness we can help just one person and remind ourselves that the strong need the weak so we can see our own poverty. So we can become human. And “help” may mean simply listening with full presence. Vanier would say that in helping the Justins of this life we are little lamps together forming a brighter glow in community with thousands of others doing the same thing. That is true sustainability.

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Justin this past week – January 2018

Near the end of our visit, out of the blue, Justin’s mother asked us if we could help her become a cocoa farmer. She has no job now and really no way to support her family. She has access to land, she said, as an Indigenous Person, and seedlings. Our lead farmer partner, Peter, was with us and he gave her his word that he would assist her in this goal. Who knows where this will lead but rest assured I will follow up and see what I can do to help in her endeavor.

  • Who is your Justin?
  • Can you think of a time when you talked yourself out of an idea because it was not “big enough” in the eyes of our turbocharged culture of grow or die?
  • Can you imagine how a thread of reverse scale in your life can keep you tethered to your vocation, the thing that called you to the work you loved in the first place?
  • Where are the low places you can intentionally go to seek out these tethers?

In a mashup of Boyle and Vanier I say we can find humanity and divinity in the low places of relationships, pain, sorrow, loneliness, poverty, regardless of religion. This is the place where we can see our true selves. It’s something we return to again and again throughout our lives not mistaking these encounters as the destination. No, they are only glimpses that give us the reminder “Oh, I see. This is who I am.”