There is always something special about this time of year. For some, it’s the cooler nights and smell of burning leaves, for others it’s picking apples and making pie, or the start of a new school year. There are a lot of changes with the coming Fall.
As Jews, we take the time over the next ten days, to pause and reflect on the past 12 months and the year approaching. In many ways it’s like a self-meditative recalibration in the aftermath of so much activity. We each lead busy lives and it’s sometimes hard to find those minutes in the day to reflect, to pause, to just be still.
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I take stock in everything I accomplished this past year and where I came up short…which relationships I was able to forge while simultaneously trying to understanding those relationships I could have made better, because of my lack of attention.
People come in and out of our lives each year. Friendships grow closer or wane depending on various events and circumstances. There may be new celebrations of life, the passing of a loved one, or the untimely move of a close friend. It’s truly remarkable when you pause and think back to all the new people you made relationships with this past year and at the same time how you continued to build on your existing ones.
But even more special is when one of these relationships shines in your life unexpectedly. There is a profound beauty in the simplicity of their connection to you. Something gets triggered that bridges their world with yours in a way that is compatible and exponential in it’s ability to add to your life. As a physicist, I know that when two waves superimpose in constructive interference the resulting wave has a higher amplitude than the previous wave. Meaningful relationships are very much like these waves and can grow to include a community – very much like the one we find ourselves in today at TBJ.
Early in my business career, I joined a small software start-up company in Burlington, MA. I was nervous as I knew nothing about business or how software was commercially engineered. I was given the job of “software evangelist” because they felt I was passionate enough to help be the technical sales nerd. Everyone around me was considerably older. I was clearly the “new kid” and I was green.
One week into my new job I walked around the office and decided to go see the engineers and product team. As I made my way around the building I noticed a tall guy who looked familiar. To my surprise, it was a Bates College classmate who graduated one year ahead of me! Peter Goodrich and I spent hours together in physics and math classes and he was someone that I could turn to when I didn’t understand how to solve a complicated physics problem. Our Tuesday nights often consisted of him helping me understand the intricacies of quantum mechanics – the nature of the smallest of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles.
Peter and I would often meet for dinner in the cafeteria, talk about physics, and discuss the flight patterns and aerodynamics of nature’s creatures…including his passion for dragonflies… expert fliers that can move straight up and down and hover like helicopters. We would then walk to the Science center and spend the next 6 hours solving all the problems of the universe. Hours later, our all class room white boards would be covered with Greek letters and mathematical expressions that invariably led to an answer where x = -1, 0, and 1 which correlated to some physical description of the universe.
Peter was a great friend, mentor, and calming influence when trying to work through endless problem sets. Peter also had significant dyslexia – a challenge in physics since writing out the mathematical derivations required absolute precision. In an unexpected complementary twist, Peter would guide me through advanced physics while I returned the favor by helping him be his scribe for his thesis. It became a relationship built on two waves with a larger amplitude…and now Peter happened to be working at my first tech job!
Peter once again taught me. This time the intricacies of software engineering and product management. He had a talent to not only be deeply technical but take the time to listen to customers and communicate how best to deploy our solutions. I would jokingly tell him his head was like a dragonfly covered in eyes that could see every angle except right behind him. I used to like to sneak up on him and scare from behind. He just knew how to see what people needed. We spent months together traveling to various customer meetings deepening our friendship.
After a year of working together, I received a phone call from someone I met at a tech event. He asked if I had an interest to join a small, unknown startup company in NH looking to change the way customers received service online. It was the time of ecommerce – if you bought something online then you should be able to return something online as well – or so he thought. I discussed this new job opportunity with Peter and he agreed it was worth pursuing.
In three years, our fledgling company went from a handful of people to over 950 employees. I would travel non-stop logging over 150,000 airline miles in one year and in an ironic twist found myself on an airplane heading to California with none other than Peter. Once again our waves met…and this time with big hugs and a 6 hour conversation as we flew across the US. It turned out that both of us would fly out to Los Angeles quite frequently for various meetings for our respective companies. It was meant to be. We surprisingly both married our college sweethearts and started thinking about when our first children might show up!
By 2001, the tech industry had changed. The bubble had burst and employees shuffled from .com based companies to explore more solid ground. I too was part of this change while Peter remained at the same company.
And then 17 years ago to this day the world stopped and watched the World Trade Center Towers fall. Three days later I received an email from a former colleague and friend asking me to call him. It turned out that Peter was on United Flight 175 – the second hijacked airplane to hit the south tower at 9:03 AM. The very plane we would travel on together to Los Angeles just months before. It didn’t seem real or possible. Nothing did at that time.
A few months later, our college published its quarterly update with a tribute to Peter. His warm smile and caring eyes shined back from the accompanying photo. It was at that point that I realized I had lost a friend – someone who I did not see regularly as a “close friend” but someone that was just simply always there in my life and there to lend a hand. Someone who was a mentor, a sounding board, a comedian. And now… he was gone. I wept.
Less than a decade later, I started a new tech business focused on helping coordinate the massive amount of information when constructing some of the largest buildings, bridges, roads, tunnels, in the world. Our software was used to manage over 4M building projects around the globe and in an interesting turn of events I found myself standing in the hole of the World Trade Center complex on top of the very footings where millions of pounds of steel would soon be sitting.
I would often think of Peter, whisper his name in a prayer. We’re going to rebuild this even better. Months would pass and in the Spring of 2012 the Freedom Tower became the tallest building in New York City at 1,776 feet, a deliberate and perfect height. I went to check on the project and meet with our customers and then just three years later in 2015 it was complete…and I was off to build a new company.
This past spring, I found myself back in New York City with a little spare time. I decided to take a walk to visit the 9/11 Memorial – a new addition that I had not seen. As I walked along the Memorial Plaza I gazed at the countless names of men, women, and children killed in the attacks inscribed in the bronze plates surrounding the twin memorial pools. I searched for Peter’s stencil-cut name and held out my hand to press it against my skin – something that I could take back with me as I made the two-block walk back to my hotel.
By the time I made it back to my hotel Peter’s name had faded in my hand. I was hungry and decided to sit outside on the terrace looking out over the World Trade Center. As I sat down, something grabbed my attention. I glanced across to the chair across from me where resting on the top was a dragonfly. I smiled. I thought to myself, “My friend Peter has returned to say hello.”
What was the probability that a dragonfly in the concrete universe of New York City would happen to pick this very spot.
And then I realized — they were about the same odds as what Max Born, a particle physicist, would describe – that the probability of obtaining any possible measurement outcome is equal to the square of the corresponding wave amplitude.
Perhaps our waves of energy were meant to cross paths again.
Our circle of relationships may change each year but their impact is never forgotten. If we seek friendship or love ,then we must make ourselves available to seek friendship and love back. Are we prepared to love? And, our time, however limited it may be in the course of a day or a year, is the greatest gift we can give someone. Are we available to provide time?
With this season of self-reflection, let’s take stock of how we wish to be truly present in the lives we connect with each day. Let’s find a way to extend a hand to those we don’t know and explore the opportunity to find new waves with new friends- like my friend Peter.
Rabbi Robin’s D’var torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah reminded us about how the Jewish sages warned us about how we speak of strangers as noted 36 times as commandments in the Torah. More than any other commandment. The Rabbi mentioned how there were four different interpretations in the Torah regarding strangers. I might offer a fifth. The stranger inside…which manifests when we unconsciously disconnect from our present reality and the people around us. We also become prisoners in repetitive thoughts and preconceived perspectives of those we barely know. Perhaps this is the underlying commonality among the other four interpretations throughout the Torah.
Freedom of worship, religion, and speech – these are core Jewish values. As Jews we all know what it’s like to be treated as a stranger and it’s why we are extra sensitive when it comes to tolerance and being respectful to others.
The Dali Lama wrote, “Genuine friendships depends on genuine affection and taking a sense of responsibility for each other.”
If we can have shared concern for each other, we can transcend our differences and enhance our relationships each day.
And maybe, just maybe, a dragonfly stops by to remind us of the meaning of friendship.