Sometimes the greatest words you’ve never heard might be Hints from Heaven.
What are they?
Hints, strange events and traces of meta-meaning unspoken; first sensed then connected—like dots. It’s similar to deciphering a code or unveiling a message written in invisible ink. Once the message appears, it’s followed quickly by an over-arching sense of awe, confusion and for most, disbelief.
THE SIMPLICITY CONUNDRUM
Messages and miracles don’t happen these days, right?
I was trying to write a difficult story when I ran into a perplexing problem—a total roadblock. How do you simplify a complex story—one that involves quantum physics, cancer, dying, depression, hope against all odds and the ephemeral topic of miracles?
The story was about a terminally ill cancer patient, a licensed clinical neuropsychologist and international bestselling author that you will meet later in my book, The Greatest Words You’ve Never Heard: True Stories of Triumph.” He was a doctor—one that believed in miracles as well as the ability to look for, identify and make miracles for yourself and others.
Part of the story delved into the concept of synchronicity—finding meaning in causally unrelated (“acausal”) coincidences and events—events that greatly stretch the probabilities of chance and even belief sometimes. The doctor in the story believed that the concept of synchronicity helped him understand and survive his “terminal” disease. The trick, he believed, was to become aware of these events and coincidences in his life and seek meaning in them.
Some synchronistic events create puzzling paradoxes that seem to be beyond our understanding of reality. They conflict with the fundamental principles of our reason, but nonetheless, they happen.
Synchronicity was a term coined by Dr. Carl Jung to describe these types of happenings. During his many years of research and medical practice, he documented multiple cases that could not be explained by mere probabilities of chance. Dr. Jung came to believe that if you pay attention to these events, they could add meaning to your life. They might even help and guide you in a time of personal distress.
All of this was out of my league. Way out. But I was open to at least thinking about the possibility of synchronicity. The problem was how to explain it in clear, simple language and at the same time, incorporate the quantum physics, non-locality and observer participancy elements that were also part of the story, then weave them so that the seams didn’t show.
Like I said, way out of my league.
Some coincidences could be interesting little curiosities. You go to a bookstore looking for a particular book, but can’t remember the title. You walk down an aisle and a book falls off of the shelf right in your path. It’s the very book you’re looking for—odd, but nothing life-changing. Perplexing though.
But some synchronistic events can be life-savers, like the following two real-life events.
RATHER ORDINARY REASONS
“All 15 members of a church choir in Beatrice, Nebraska, due at practice at 7:20, were late on the evening of March 1, 1950. The minister, his wife and daughter had one reason (his wife was delayed to iron the daughter’s dress), one girl waited to finish a geometry problem, one couldn’t start her car, two lingered to hear the end of an especially exciting radio program, one mother and daughter were late because the mother had to call the daughter twice to wake her from a nap and so on. The reasons seemed rather ordinary.
“But there were 10 separate and quite unconnected reasons for the lateness of the 15 persons. It was rather fortunate that none of the 15 arrived on time at 7:20, for at 7:25, the church building was destroyed in an explosion.”
– From “Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability,” by Warren Weaver
What does this mean, if anything? What are the odds of something like this happening?
Is there possibly an undiscovered connection between minds that transcends the known laws of the universe? Are our minds connected to a “collective unconscious” as Dr. Jung believed? And, if so…
WHAT TO MAKE OF THIS?
One of my all-time favorite books, a classic called Man’s Search for Meaning written by Dr. Viktor Frankl, described a synchronistic event that changed his life forever.
Dr. Frankl had a successful neurology and psychiatry practice in Germany in the late 1930s, but he was Jewish. He knew he had to leave Germany soon or face death. He applied for a visa and after several years, it was approved. But there was a problem.
“I was asked to come to the US consulate to pick up my visa. Then I hesitated: Should I leave my parents behind? I knew what their fate would be: deportation to a concentration camp. Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate? The visa was exclusively for me.”
– Viktor Frankl, Search for Meaning
THE HINT WISH
Dr. Frankl remembered thinking then that he’d wished for a “hint from heaven” to help him make the decision. Later that day, he picked up the visa and went to visit his parents to discuss it. When he arrived, he found his father in tears.
“The Nazis have burned down the synagogue.”
Dr. Frankl noticed a piece of marble on the table. He asked his father about it. It was a fragment his father had saved from the synagogue. It had some scorched writing on it.
ONE ENGRAVED LETTER
There was one letter etched into the marble. It was the beginning of one of the Ten Commandments.
כבד את האבא שלך ואמא שלך
“HONOR THY FATHER AND THY MOTHER.”
Dr. Frankl made his decision. He canceled his visa. It changed his life forever. He was sent to the death camps—yes I said “camps.”
Dr. Frankl survived more than one Nazi death camp, and Man’s Search for Meaning recounts that experience. He wrote the book in nine days. It was published in 1946 and is widely considered to be one of the most influential books of our times.
Strange—undeniably strange and true. But nothing like that has ever happened to me. Not even a book falling off a shelf to land at my feet.
But maybe I hadn’t been looking close enough, because while finalizing the research for the story I was working on I happened across an article that I’d written a couple of years ago. Was stumbling upon this story synchronistic? I don’t know … but I hadn’t thought of this story for many years.
It was also about another terminally ill cancer patient—a woman I knew. I was asked to write a fundraising story about her plight. It had been exceptionally hard to write, but it was one of those rare moments when you feel humbled to be asked to do something that might actually make a difference—if only for a short time.
LIVING WHILE DYING
Trying to complete that story was a challenge for me, too. Remarkably, it was similar to the one I was working on about the doctor. The raw emotions involved, the brutal facts, the stark realities and worse, trying to communicate what it’s like to face the everyday issues of living while you’re dying—in plain, simple language—without getting lost in data or minutiae that really doesn’t matter.
Happening upon this previously written story at exactly that time helped me to remove the block and finish the story. It made me ask the question that, as I think about it, still makes my head want to explode.
Was happening upon my previous article purposeful or simply an accident?
I struggle with the thought of it being purposeful. It conflicts with my view of reality. If it wasn’t purposeful, then it was an accident. But if it was an accident, it was a synchronistic event that only I could draw meaning from.
Could these hints from heaven, or synchronistic events, be the greatest words you will never hear?
I haven’t resolved the puzzling paradox yet, but I did run across words from Dr. Richard Feynman that helped me come to terms with it…
“A paradox is not a conflict within reality. It is a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality should be like.”
To win at business or life, adversity has to be encountered, faced, fought and defeated. There is no other way. No options. You either beat it, or it beats you. Win, or you lose.
It’s never black and white. Never win or lose. Something always bleeds over. Always. Sometimes good – sometimes bad. Sometimes funny – sometimes sad. Most times a little of both. But hopefully each experience brings with it life lessons and blessings.
This is one such story – but I didn’t know it at the time. Like many mystical magical moments in life, it was gone before I had time to come to grips with my own inadequacy. It was gone before the numbness of an ordinary, normal, average life was pierced by the spear of an angelic character, steeled by a life done wrong.
Take no umbrage, no offense, at the point-of-view of the narrator. It’s a personal recollection. A recollection colored by fond remembrances of two spirits sideswiping each other on life’s unfathomable path.
Sometimes there’s nothing sadder than humor.
SMART VS. SMART-ARSE
Several years ago I got fired for being too smart. That was my recollection. Everyone else’s recollection was I was fired for being a smart-arse.
So, I had to find a new job. My first interview went well (not). I was promptly turned down for the CEO position at a well-known hosiery company. Now granted, I didn’t have much (any) experience in the creation, production, marketing, sales or distribution supply chain of the hosiery industry. But, being of the gender I am (a manly kilt-wearing man), I was pretty certain I could articulate the benefits and unique selling proposition (USP) of the product in a compelling and profitable way.
Upon rejection (there was some confusion upon my departure. The mistaken impression that I was ejected from the premises may have been surmised had one been watching), I forlornly began wandering the streets of Cincinnati, with my head drooped just about level with my navel.
Walking like this has some disadvantages. Clarity of vision is one. I ran into something hard, looked up, and before me was … an apparition, an event, a pre-destined meeting, a saint.
A WOMAN IN A WHEELCHAIR.
But Steve, you say to yourself, that’s not terribly uncommon. A little melodramatic aren’t you?
She had no legs. And …
She controlled the operation of her motorized wheelchair by blowing through a tube. I was humbled. Dropped low. Deep. My problems were now nothing but a smashed proton in the unfathomable singularity of a black hole.
She was navigating the sidewalks of Cincinnati by herself.
To educate people unfamiliar with Cincinnati on how daunting a task this can be, Cincinnati sidewalks were built before sidewalks had been imagined and possibly even before the invention of the wheel. A rut in the sidewalk is typically referred to as an “improvement.”
Cincinnati Sidewalk Improvement
I saw her get ready to enter a building and leapt forward to open the door. As I did, she spoke, my apparition, my saint, with an angelic voice.
“Hey, Bozo, what do you think I am some useless quadriplegic?” she said.
I guess even saints have rough days.
TERM OF ENDEARMENT
I considered the reference to me as “Bozo (the clown)” as a term of endearment. Why? Because my face had turned absolute white, my nose vivid red, my hair popped out like a bad 70’s Afro (I used to have a good 70’s Afro … I know the difference).
“I’m sorry, I was just trying to help.”
“You want to help? Get in here and buy something.”
She was the owner of the shop. And, in one of those weird synchronicities not fully explained, but hinted at in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, she sold, you guessed it, women’s apparel. Mostly hosiery.
Her name was Antonia Maria, and that’s all the personal history I ever really learned about her.
I was so overwhelmed, humbled, and awed at the obvious obstacles and adversity that Antonia Maria was overcoming daily, if not nanosecond-by-nanosecond, that I bought 37 pair of every imaginable type of hosiery (under the guise of real-time market research for my next hosiery CEO job application).
Her eyebrows arched a bit (well, maybe more than a bit) when I piled them up on the counter. And, with my usual sophisticated schmoozing aplomb
I explained I had an extended family.
“Lots of females,” said I.
For nearly a year, once a week, I stopped by her shop and bought hose. We became Forrest and Bubba Gump-ette close.
“Hey Antonia Maria.”
Each visit was an inspiration. A lifting up, not sad, not melancholy, but a moving, life-affirming, sharing of the human spirit and journey. To trek through this world as she did, daily overcoming the obstacles (physical, economic and social) and adversity she faced … was truly amazing.
Occasionally she’d catch me in a mathematical obfuscation.
“How many females in your extended family?”
“Was 25 last week.”
“Newborns … very fertile, my family.”
RIGHT THING. RIGHT TIME
In addition, she was quite the enterprising entrepreneur, having an in-depth, innate grasp of contextual marketing concepts. Antonia Maria had the incredible knack of saying the right thing, at the right time, to the right person, to move them deep into the buying cycle.
“I’m guessing you’ll need a few extra pair of hose this week then?”
I AM RUDE AND DUMB
Yes, I admit. Freely. Authentically. Rude and dumb. I honestly throw myself on the altar of “what was I thinking?” I could not, often times, refrain from staring at her when I felt she wasn’t looking. I wondered how she did it.
How she coped. How she smiled. How she woke each day and got out of bed to go to work. And a million other “hows” that crossed my misfiring neurons.
Then, it was over.
She disappeared. Her shop closed. No signs. No explanations. No forwarding address. I inquired, but no one knew anything. I hesitated to do any extensive investigation for fear of what I might learn.
The Eyes Have It
It’s said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. If that’s true, Antonia Maria’s soul was on fire. Her iridescent brown-green eyes absorbed and expressed life. Faith. Spirit. Strength. Hope.
To this very moment, I remember everything about Antonia Maria. Everything so incredibly resilient, hopeful, happy, glad and beautiful she ever said.
HOW DID SHE DO IT?
I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to answer that. Never will be. I couldn’t do it. Too weak.
I do know that Antonia Maria had a vigorous life-affirming charismatic spirit that shone through all her adversities. She had a heart wider than the Grand Canyon that would take on any issue with uncharacteristic straight-forwardness. And …
Not once, let me repeat this, not once, did she ever complain about … or for that matter even explain, her physical condition.
If I had to guess how she did it?
Spirit. Heart. Guts. Faith … and life-enabling technologies.
The technological marvels wrought by industry research, development, application and availability that enabled Antonia Maria to face, fight, defeat and triumph over her physical obstacles were, unless you actually saw it, almost ineffable. Every person and company associated, in any way, with these technological life-enabling wonders, epitomizes the oft-quoted lines:
Eventually our relationship had a downside that ultimately gave me the opportunity and skills to overcome an adverse moment in life. Last month, my wife, grandmother, daughter and aunt were rummaging through my basement workshop for “yard sale” items.
HOW MANY PAIRS OF HOSE???
They found 2,093 pair of hose.
When confronted by this gathering storm of frumpettes, I quickly used my marketing abilities to “reposition” this disturbing find and utilized a UES (Unique Explanation Statement) touting the find as in-depth “market-research.” This was supposed to overcome the obstacle of false impression embedded in their minds.
It failed. Utterly. Miserably.
WAR AND PEACE
Only one supporter swallowed the UES – my dog, Tolstoy.
(Named so not because he looks like Tolstoy, but because he always backs me during war or peace … provided he receives his weekly stipend of Scooby snacks.)
But being the absolute ruler and king of the castle, I decided to imperiously tell the gathering storm of frumptettes to mind their own business.
That didn’t work either.
So, I confronted this impending doom of an adverse moment, and took decisive action. I grabbed the donkey by the horns and used a tried-and-true tactic. One that successful Venture Capitalists use almost daily.
And it worked. The tactic?
THE EXIT STRATEGY
The Path feature image courtesy of H. Kopp Delaney. Please visit his site. One of the best artistic talents of our times.
This was originally going to be an interview with the international best-selling author Steven Pressfield about his historical thriller, Killing Rommel. Steven is a master storyteller. His works, such as The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, and The Afghan Campaign, and many others are legendary among military aficionados. His book, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, is required reading at West Point.
While talking with Steven about Killing Rommel, we wandered off the beaten path a bit to discuss the power of story – in business and life – to move people to higher grounds. The kind of power that can inspire people to perform great feats of selflessness and humanity. But, we didn’t stop there – we derailed onto troublesome questions of morality, character and ethics.
Great Stories are Questions
Really great historical stories make you a part of the past. You’re there. You smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Taste the foods. Trod the paths. But most importantly, they make you think – force you to question the very tenets and precepts of life you may have previously taken for granted … or not even thought of at all.
Questions that allow you to commune with the past, in the present, about the future. But, much as Heraclitus says …
You can not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you. – Heraclitus
You may also feel great loss when the story ends. Killing Rommel does that. It raises questions that transcend the story itself.
Autumn, 1942. Hitler’s legions have swept across Europe. France has fallen. Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, the Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan – send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike a blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.
Killing Rommel – 10 Minute Mini-Docu
Narrated from the point-of-view of a young lieutenant, Killing Rommel brings to life the flair, agility, and daring of this extraordinary secret unit – the Long Range Desert Group.
Non Vi Sed Arte
Stealthy and lethal as the scorpion that serves as their insignia, they live by the motto — Non Vi Sed Arte (Not by Strength, by Guile) – as they gather intelligence, set up ambushes, and execute raids.
KILLING ROMMEL: A splendid tour de force, one that brings to life the heroism, sacrifice, tragedy, frustration, fear and — yes — thrill of war. It should not be missed by anyone who wants a moving reminder of the bravery, ingenuity and sacrifice that ordinary men are capable of when given a cause they believe in.” – Washington Post
Enter Steven Pressfield
Steve Kayser: What led you to this story, Killing Rommel, this man, this time, this war?
Steven Pressfield: I was researching Alexander the Great’s cavalry tactics for a couple of earlier books. That led me to Frederick the Great, to Napoleon, and to other more contemporary cavalry commanders. Then, I came across Rommel. He used tanks with the same dash and aggressiveness as Alexander used cavalry. Even though I thought of writing a story strictly about Rommel nothing was clicking. Finally I stumbled upon the British Long Range Desert Group. Something about them grabbed me. I just had to tell the story of these guys – and Rommel.
Steve Kayser: Grabbed you?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. They were a bunch of ordinary, (but special) guys, out in the desert, no roads, no GPS, no CNN or Fox News, no ammo, just some old Chevrolet trucks, and a couple of machine guns … 500 miles behind enemy lines.
Steve Kayser: No Jeeps?
Steven Pressfield: Just Chevrolet trucks. They bought them at a civilian dealership in Cairo.
Steve Kayser: Those are not ordinary guys. I know. I read the posting for the job.
“Only men who do not mind a hard life, with scanty food, little water and lots of discomfort, men who possess stamina and initiative, need apply.”
Steven Pressfield: Ordinary guys in extraordinary circumstances. That posting you refer to was a quote was from the initial British Army Circular, summer 1940, seeking volunteers for what would become the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
Steve Kayser: They teamed up with an exceptional unit, the SAS?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. The SAS is the British equivalent of our American Special Forces. SAS stands for Special Air Service. Full of some amazing swashbuckling characters –Paddy Mayne, the most decorated British soldier of WWII, Jock Lewes, George Jellicoe, Sandy Scratchley; Randolph Churchill, son of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others.
The original conception of the SAS was that they would be a parachute-borne commando outfit. But after one debacle in which men were dropped into a sandstorm and many were lost, the whole concept looked like it would flop horribly. It so happened though that David Stirling (founder of the SAS) was talking with a young LRDG officer who suggested that the SAS forget parachuting (too dangerous) and let the Long Range Desert Group deliver them like a taxi service to their raids. Thus was born a partnership that gave Rommel more headaches than anyone could have imagined.
Steve Kayser: Their mission?
Steven Pressfield: In the darkest hour of the North African war (summer 1942) – when Rommel’s panzers were poised 60 miles from Alexandria and the British in Cairo were burning their code books waiting to be overrun at any moment – the LRDG and the SAS are dispatched on a desperate mission. Their instructions are to use the deep desert routes known only to them, get in the rear of the Afrika Korps and penetrate its formations in the field. From there, they are to locate Rommel and go in after him.
“The peril of the hour moved the British to tremendous exertions, just as always in a moment of extreme danger things can be done which had previously been thought impossible. Mortal danger is an effective antidote for fixed ideas.”– Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
Steve Kayser: Why was Rommel so important? He was just one man.
“We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and,may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” – Winston Churchill
Steven Pressfield: Rommel had gained the world’s respect for his military genius. He was a legend.
“There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind of magical or bogey-man to our troops, who are talking far too much about him. He is by no means a superman, although he is undoubtedly very energetic and able. Even if he were a superman, it would still be highly undesirable that our men should credit him with supernatural powers.” – British General Claude Auchinleck
Steven Pressfield: At the same time, Rommel was reminiscent of the more romantic, chivalrous days of old – and was a genuinely humane military officer. Rommel was Germany’s best General. You have to remember all of Europe was in Nazi hands at the time. The Americans hadn’t entered the war yet. Russia was being attacked by 166 Nazi divisions. Things were grim. And Rommel, the greatest desert fighting general of all time, and his Africa Korps, were kicking the British’s butt, pushing them back to Cairo. It became a case where the war might have been lost right there.
Steve Kayser: Chivalrous in war? Can you give an example?
Steven Pressfield: When Rommel’s panzers overran a British field hospital where the staff had elected not to flee but to stay with their patients (who were German and Italian as well as British and Commonwealth), Rommel visited the site at once, shook the hand of every doctor and nurse and thanked them personally. He asked them to stay on until he could bring up his own Afrika Korps medical personnel (the British readily agreed), then made it a point of honor not to make them prisoners of war but to have them repatriated through neutral Switzerland. Can you imagine something like that happening today?
Steve Kayser: No. Today they’d be sent back without their heads. If they were sent back at all. You mentioned that the battle in North Africa was marked by an astonishing amount of self-restraint among combatants.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. Rommel himself wrote an account of his experiences in North Africa. He titled it Krieg Ohne Hass, “War Without Hate.” Deliberate self-restraint was a fact on the ground in the North Africa campaign of ’40 to ’43. Machine gunners on both sides routinely held their fire when crewmen bailed out of shot-up tanks, stretcher-bearers were permitted to dash into the open to collect the wounded. In dressing stations and field hospitals, it was not uncommon for soldiers of the Axis and Allies to be treated side-by-side – often by German and British doctors working shoulder to shoulder.
Steve Kayser: War without hate. Deliberate self-restraint. Allowed enemy soldiers to be treated by his doctors. That took a lot of courage on his part.
Steven Pressfield: More than you know. He was ordered several times by Hitler to “Stand and Die.” To fight to the last bullet, the last man. To execute and torture prisoners. He defied those orders.
Steve Kayser: You tell the story through a young lieutenant who was not a professional soldier. In fact, far from it. He was an average guy in college then … the war came.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. I wanted to examine the actions of ordinary men under extraordinary circumstances. To ask the question if, in the end, their very ordinariness wasn’t what saved them and brought them ultimately to victory.
Steve Kayser: Was there actually a real mission to kill Rommel?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. It was on one of Rommel’s camps called Beda Litoria, which was an Italian town. The Brits thought Rommel was there and they attacked at night with special forces. But he wasn’t there. They killed a bunch of Afrika Korps soldiers, then they were killed themselves. The interesting part was that Rommel had the British soldiers buried with honor, alongside his defenders.
Steve Kayser: To me, Killing Rommel is a story layered with morals, courage and questions. Lots of questions. What question or issue were you trying to shine the most light on?
Steven Pressfield: The issue of morality in warfare. Not just in theoretical terms but from the point-of-view of the individual soldier on the ground. Today, in the era of suicide bombers and global terrorism and the response to terrorism, (which is a moral question equally as important), I wanted to shine a light on another time and a different way of fighting a war. And not a wimpy war, but the most devastating, all-out conflict in the history of humankind.
Is it possible for men to retain their humanity while fighting for the very survival of civilization? What part do ethics, chivalry and self-restraint play in modern armed conflict? Are these some quaint holdovers from a vanished past? Or, can the honorable actions of officers and men actually help produce victory?
Steve Kayser: Could people like General Rommel or General Patton make it today, or even exist – with all the constraints of Western political correctness? Realistically? Take General Patton, for example. Charming, yet mean as a snake. Dyslexic, yet brilliant. His temper and rash acts made people question his intelligence. He could be vicious and violent, yet a gentleman. He was a history buff that seemed to live life outside his own time – almost as if he had lived before. Kind-hearted and callous, he prayed on his knees but cussed like a sailor. He was stone-faced in battle, but cried like a baby for his fallen soldiers. His men called him “Old Blood and Guts.” If you ever read his poem“Through a Glass Darkly,”you will be touched, astounded or shocked at the depth of his vision and intelligence. But could Patton make it today? I say no.
Steven Pressfield: Good question. They were very different – yet very much alike. Noble warriors. But it is men and women of moral strength and character like them that have to surface when you’re facing an implacable foe. Especially when you’re fighting for the very survival of your civilization. Leaders with Character, Chivalry and Courage – Relics of the Past? What do you think?
And what about yourself?
Have you faced difficult moments in your life where you chose the tough road, the politically incorrect but right path, and paid the price – by way of money, job, relationships or self-respect? What did you learn?
Would you do anything different?
Let me know.
Please keep answers to 100 words. Email me with the subject line GREAT LEADERS at Skayser@cincom.com.
Best 10 reponses will win a copy of KILLING ROMMEL.
About Steve Pressfield:
Since this is a different kind of story, I decided to to do an Animotorized bio-pictorial “About Steven Pressfield.” Why is it different? Because it is. It’s the world’s first.