I am standing by the elevators on the seventh floor of the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta that specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, pain and other neurological conditions. The wing is so new there are no names on the doors and clear plastic sheeting stripes the carpeting from the elevators to the offices.
A man comes around the corner in a wheelchair, hunched over as if he’d been dropped into it from a considerable height. He has dark hair and challenging, almost defiant, dark eyes. His shirt is vertically striped in bold shades of green and blue, and in his lap is a small pink bag.
I turn away, which is what strangers do in a city.
But then I remember: I’m at Shepherd Center, a family-owned hospital where patients are told “Once you’re a patient here, you’re always a member of the family.” A place of passion and excellence, of innovation and generosity, a place where the unofficial motto is “Why not?”
I turn. The man is eyeing me as he near.
“You’re just in time,” I say. “I’ve ordered the rock ‘n’ roll elevator.”
“This is the place for it,” he says. “Shepherd rocks and the patients roll.”
“I like that. Did that come to you just now, or have you been working on it?”
“I’ve been coming here for years,” he says. “My name is Ron. I was a shrink for 27 years, but I got MS. There used to be a banner downstairs that said ‘Shepherd nurses rock.’ I told ’em they were missing the point. It should say, ‘Shepherd nurses rock so patients can roll.’ There are miracles in the air and in the water in this place.”
We stare at each other for a moment.
“Who –?” he begins.
I introduce myself, tell him I’ve been hired by Harold Shepherd, the hospital’s co-founder, to collect stories about the center that were not included in a book written for its 25th anniversary in 2000.
“I’ve got a story to tell,” he says, tilting his head and gazing at me from the corner of his eye. He turns, looks directly at me. “God does things like this sometimes, you know. Meetings like this….”
I do know. It’s been happening since spring when, after six and a half years of trying to reinvent myself, I had a small-bore epiphany one sunny morning in May: I was an utter and dismal failure. I pondered this for some time, baffled, as I had been so often over the past few years.
It never used to be like this: I did good work. I was paid well, was reasonably well-liked and got along pretty well until I realized one day that I had to leave my job at CNN.com.
There was something I had to do. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew what it wasn’t, and I knew it wasn’t at CNN Center. But I was comfortable, and paid well, and I drifted — a lifelong fault. But when AOL and TimeWarner merged, I was laid off, and no matter what I tried after that, reinventing myself in the name of passion, purpose and authenticity failed.
Then it occurred to me that I had spent 25 years on the spiritual path, searching out and investigating the far corners of the possible and the improbable. I satisfied myself long ago that there was a Creator to whom I owed my existence, but on a daily basis my life wasn’t getting any better.
In fact, I had taken accountability to the extreme, believing that I was responsible for everything that happened to me. But once beyond the predictable rhythms of corporate America, my system failed. And it was several years later before I saw the flaw in my theology: I was trying to get God to do what I in all my glorious dysfunction thought he should do.
So one morning in the sunroom of my house, still in my pajamas, I turned my work and income issues over to the God of this new understanding. Later, I realized I’d hedged my bets even then. Turning over career and income was just a start, but that prayer got things rolling.
Within days I got calls asking for help with a book on Martin Luther King Jr., and the call from Mr. Shepherd, Three newspaper editors called with freelance assignments, and two publishers looking for help with books. And one of the latter offered more money than I’d made in the previous three years combined to do a book about a major corporation.
That one didn’t work out, and I grieved about the money I didn’t make for a few days. But I have no regrets. The Shepherd Center assignment introduced me to people who are passionate about their work and who give hope and new life to people in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.
There are still a lot of uncertainties, and if I knew how much work there is yet to be done, I’d probably give up. But the good news, as Ron reminded me at the elevators, is that I am not in control.
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