Reader’s Guide: Going Deeper
I wrote this book so that other people -- people like you -- might be inspired to take care of your unfinished business too. This chapter-by-chapter reader's guide is designed to help you begin that process.
Prologue: Compiling the List
Chapter One: Searching for Sorrow's Daughter
Chapter Two: I'm So Sorry for Your Loss
Chapter Three: The Check is in the Mail
Chapter Four: I've Been Thinking of You Since the Planes Struck
Chapter Five: Forgive Me the Harm I Wished on You
Chapter Six: Thank You, Mr. Jarvis
Chapter Seven: On the Road to Mount Athos
Chapter Eight: The Day Eliot Ness Set My Grandfather Straight--Or Did He?
Chapter Nine: I Remember Nana
Chapter Ten: The Circle Grows Wider
Epilogue: Moving Ahead
Ten Things That Truly Matter
Themes: Memory, atonement, forgiveness, job loss.
Think about it: If you had one year to tie up your loose emotional ends, how would you spend it? What items would be at the top of your list of unfinished business?
In this chapter the author notes the role that making amends plays in 12-step addiction-recovery programs and in various religious traditions? How central is making amends to your own religious tradition or in your own life?
Think about a major trauma or disappointment you've experienced. Did it lead you to take stock and reevaluate your goals and relationships and the way you were leading your life?
The author didn't realize the extent of his unfinished business until he looked through boxes that contained photos and mementos, "the accumulated stuff" of his life. Look through your own photos, yearbooks and old correspondence. Do you experience any especially deep pangs of sadness or regret? Do you come across people, dead or still living, that you would like to see and talk with again?
"It isn't the easy tasks that become our unfinished business. It's the hard ones, the ones we are most afraid to face?" Do you agree with this statement? Can you name a task that has been particularly hard for you to face? Why has facing it been so hard for you?
The author lists several reasons why he let matters of great personal consequence slide: not enough time or energy, his tendency to procrastinate, his fears of doing something wrong. What are some of the reasons that you accumulate unfinished business?
Finding a Long-Lost Relative
Themes: Childhood memories, family dynamics, mental illness.
Have you ever lost touch with someone who was important to you when you were a child? Who was that person and what did they mean to you? Why did you lose touch?
Is there an Aunt Fern in your family -- a person who suffers from a debilitating mental or emotional illness? What impact has that person's illness had on you and your family? Are some of your relatives more empathetic than others toward that person's plight? How would you rate your own level of concern?
When the author sees Fern again, they engage in a deep embrace. "There was nothing awkward or self-conscious about this embrace; it was primal, nourishing. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders -- the weight of not knowing if Fern was dead or alive, the weight of shutting her out of my mind, the weight of no longer being the person I had been to her. I felt light just being in Fern's presence, and basked in her joy at seeing me." Have you ever experienced anything similar?
The author feels encouraged by his reunion with Fern to plant the seeds of reconciliation in his father and uncle, who have been estranged from each other for nearly 30 years. Do you think the seeds he is planting will bear fruit? Why or why not?
Making a Condolence Call
Themes: Friendship, Loss, Grieving, Father-Son/Father-Daughter Relationships, Angels, Compassion.
The author was deeply upset to hear about the death of his friend's daughter. And yet, he struggled to write his friend a condolence card. Why do you think it was so hard for him to do it? Have you ever faced a similar situation?
When he sees Andre for the first time in nearly 40 years, the author doesn't even mention the death of his friend's daughter -- instead, he and Andre talk baseball. If you were either Andre or the author, would you have addressed Andi's death more directly? Compare the different ways Andre and Vicki deal with their grief. Do men and women grieve differently? Is one way better than the other?
This chapter chronicles the deepening friendship between the author and Andre. How have the two men been transformed by their friendship? Think about your own friendships: Have there been key events that have deepened them?
Both Andre and the author come to a major realization: "If there is an antidote to grief, it is compassion -- the kindness that others show you and that you show others." With Andre as his mentor, the author finds himself becoming more accepting of his own father, who pushed him to injury as a child. As he finds his own heart softening he writes: "The circle of compassion goes round and round, transforming every person who touches it." Do you agree?
By the end of the chapter, Andre has begun signing off his e-mails to the author with the phrase "LFL," which stands for "Loyalty, Friendship, and Love." How do you sign off your e-mails? Do you use different sign-offs for different people and relationships? Do you think that your chosen words express the way you genuinely feel about the people you love? Should they?
Repaying a Long-Overdue Debt
Themes: Debt, adventure, India, Iran, Pakistan, the stages of life.
Have you ever failed to honor a loan or debt? What were the circumstances? Are some debts more justifiable to renege on than others?
The author says he paid a price for not paying back the $600 he owed John? What was that price? What type of consequences, if any, have you suffered for neglecting to give someone something that you owed that person?
Do you have friends like John and Jim who shared a personally historic time in your life. Are you still in touch with them?
By paying off his debt, the author hopes to "reactivate a part of myself that had fallen dormant," his more adventurous side. Are there parts of yourself that have become less active or perceptible over the years? What happened to them? Do you think that seeing a friend who knew you "back in the day" would help reactivate them?
John didn't even remember the loan that loomed so large in the author's mind. What might be the lesson in that for the author and for all of us?
After seeing John and Jim, the author begins to see his year of completing his unfinished business as an adventure -- it would test his character and courage at age 55 as much as driving a Land Rover through war zones had done when he was 22. Do you think that climbing Cascade Mountain in the Adirondacks will be as great an achievement as fighting off dacoits in the foothills of the Himalayas once was for him? Why?
Reaching Out to a Distant Friend
Themes: The Power of Intention, Maximizing Your Potential, Arranged Marriages vs. Marriages of Love
Has a tragedy in the news ever caused you to think about a person you haven't seen in years? Have you ever had an impulse to find out where that person is and whether he and his loved ones are safe?
Akmal represented a time in the author's life when he felt that he could do and become anything. It was a romantic time -- a time of "minimal commitment and endless possibilities." Was there a similar period in your life? What became of the people who shared it with you?
You might consider having coffee with a friend from an earlier period of your life. (Preferably you haven't seen this friend for awhile. ) After catching up with your friend, ask: "What do you remember about me from the old days? What did you like best and least about me? What did you see as my role in your life?" Listen carefully to what your friend says and see how it squares with your perception of yourself then and now. Does your friend's portrait of you reinforce your sense of your best qualities.
Akmal and the author had not seen each other for nearly 30 years. Do you think that they would have given each other such a useful perspective on their lives had they seen each other more often over the years?
At one point in their conversation, Akmal starts sobbing as he remembers how he used to hold himself back from getting involved in relationships. He doesn't regret his current life and marriage, only the fact that he kept himself from achieving his full potential in his relationships with women he once cared about. Have you ever held yourself back from something you really wanted to do? Do you think you've led a less full life as a result?
Akmal and his friend Shahid have two very different views of the author's project. Shahid believes that it's important to address your unfinished business because "we need to make an accounting of these things before we die, so that our souls can rest." Akmal says, "It's not about resting in peace. It's about moving forward. It's about optimizing your human potential." Who in your opinion is right?
Akmal offers a formula for how a person's unfinished business impacts his life. He says we have a set amount of "psychological energy" available to us in a day. If we don't resolve our unfinished business, we deplete that energy." Apply his formula to your current day. If you woke up with 10 kilograms of psychological energy, how many kilograms did you deplete by not dealing with things you should have? What were the things you put off? How did those choices affect your energy level and effectiveness? Do you think you would have had a more productive and satisfying day had you made different choices?
"Because Akmal could see it in me, and I could see it in him, I could finally grasp a simple truth: We were who we are; we are who we were, only more so." What do you think the author meant by this statement? Do you agree with him? In what ways are you the same person you were when you were a teenager; in what ways are you a different person -- or "more so"?
Letting Go of a Grudge
Themes:: Revenge, bullies, anti-Semitism, forgiveness
When someone wrongs you, do you let it eat away at you? When someone hurts you, do you long for revenge?
In this chapter, the author feels remorse after he learns that his childhood bully has died a horrible death from alcoholism. He had always wished the worst for him, but once his tormentor is dead, he feels mean-spirited and small and wants to make amends.
But there's a wrinkle in his plans. In seeking more information about his former rival's life, he discovers that Trip treated him no better or worse than anyone else. "My desire to make amends had been predicated on my certainty that Trip had hated and tormented me more than anyone else and that my feelings of revenge were based on perceptions that were real. Now I was learning that I wasn't special to him at all." And he feels less motivated to make amends.
Think of the people in your life who occupy a too-prominent place in your psyche? Why do they push your buttons so easily? Do you think your perceptions of them are accurate? If not, why do you think you've demonized them? What do you think you gain by having an enemy in your life?
Months after getting fired, the author still feels persecuted by the people who had wronged him. An old girlfriend helps him put those feelings into perspective by sharing the story of how she learned to forgive her mother and an old boyfriend. Has another person's story ever helped you better understand a challenge you faced in your life? Is there a lesson you've learned in your own life that might have helped the author stifle his urge for revenge?
Seeking Spiritual Guidance from a Mentor
Themes: Mentoring, Gratitude, Teachers, Religion, Albert Camus, Martin Buber, I and Thou
Did you ever neglect to thank someone who changed or had a big impact on your life? Who was that person and what did he or she do for you?
What do you think prevented you from thanking that person? Would you like to reconnect with that person and thank him or her today?
The Rev. F. Washington Jarvis is described as an "unrepentant Episcopal clergyman" whose sermons are full of tough-love homilies, such as "The only life worth living is the hard life" and "Happiness comes from caring more about others than you care about yourself." Do any of his many homilies resonate with you?
The author and Mr. Jarvis resume a conversation they had 40 years earlier about the meaning of life. "We are all on death row and we are all dying. And that reality should awaken in us a sense of urgency," Mr. Jarvis says. What does it mean to live one's life with a sense of urgency? Do you?
The author says that he wants to live "a more connected life?" What does he mean by that phrase? Rate your own life. On a scale of 1 to 10, how rich is it in terms of human connectedness? Name at least three things that give your life meaning and three things that would give it more meaning?
Mr. Jarvis has a dim view of human nature: "Scratch any of us and beneath the surface is a murderer or destroyer." The author resists that view and wants to think that human beings are essentially good. What do you think?
Much of the last part of this chapter is devoted to a discussion of agape, what the Greeks considered the highest form of love. Why do you think that Mr. Jarvis says that love of this sort takes work, that "it can be inconvenient, unpleasant, costly?"
Would you characterize the majority of your relationships with people as being "I-It" or "I-Thou" by nature? Is it possible to have "I-Thou" relationships with everyone?
At the beginning of each school year, Mr. Jarvis challenges his students by saying: "After you die, what would you like people to say about you? Your answer to that question should guide the way you live." What would you like people to say about youafter you die? What would you like the epitaph on your grave to be? Are you living your life accordingly?
Taking the Road Not Taken
Themes: Eastern Orthodoxy, asceticism and celibacy, prayer, spiritual growth
Did you ever have a friend who took the road less traveled? Would you like to see where it has taken him and where it might have taken you?
Do you have any childhood friends who changed their identities or cut themselves off from their families and past? Did you have a friend like Matt who was your soul mate? Have you kept in touch? If you saw your friend again, do you think that you'd share the same essential beliefs, aspirations and values?
More than any previous chapter, this one deals with the author's journey to address the unfinished spiritual business of his life? At age 55, he yearns to be connected to something much larger than his daily concerns -- "maybe even God," he says. Do you have similar yearnings? Have they grown more intense as you've gotten older?
How does the author's perspective on his own life change as a result of his visit to the monastery? What impact does the author's visit have on Bishop Auxentios?
The author says to his friend the monk: "The way you describe it, spiritual growth is an all-consuming , twenty-four-hour-a-day obedience that requires total focus and discipline. Does a person heed to be a monk in order to achieve true spiritual growth?" The bishop responds that each person exists on a different level of spiritual growth. "For some people, spiritual growth can come from something as small as overcoming a grudge. You need to determine your own level, then work from there." How would you describe your own level of spiritual growth?
Healing a Family's Wounds
Themes: Genealogy, Family history, Organized Crime, Eliot Ness, Israel, Bridging the Generational Divide
Is your family so screwed-up and embittered that Thanksgiving and Christmas are the holidays from hell? Is there a story your grandparents once told you that's too good to believe -- or full of something-really-bad-must-have-happened holes? If so your family may be a candidate for the healing power of fact-checking, as the Kravitz family was.
In the prologue, the author writes that his family is "the source of my most intimate and anxiety-producing unfinished business." Do you think that's true for most people? Is it true for you?
When the author tries to discuss family issues directly with his relatives, he ends up fueling their tendency to blame each other. So he chooses a more indirect method for bringing his relatives together. How would the device of fact checking a family story work with your family? What family story would you choose to fact check? Why?
Who is the family historian in your family? Do you think it's important to pass on your family's history to future generations? What, if anything, could you be doing more to preserve your family's history?
Eulogizing a Loved One
Themes: Funerals, mourning, remembrance, appreciation.
Think of all the people in your life who have passed away. How many of the ones you really cared about died knowing what they had meant to you? If you had one more conversation with a loved one who may not have known, what would you say to him or her?
Think about the people closest to you who are still alive. If they died tomorrow, would they know how much they mattered to you? If they wouldn’t, tell them face-to-face today, on the phone or through an e-mail or letter. If the two of you are game, sit across from each other in a quiet room and take turns eulogizing each other. What would you miss about each other if you were gone?
The author concludes: "If we remembered how we could be separated from our loved ones at any moment, we would accumulate a lot less unfinished business. We would be quicker to forgive each other, and more kind. We would eulogize each other now, instead of waiting for death." Do you agree?
Keeping a Promise
Themes: Promises, Refugees, Charity, Africa, Thanksgiving, Philanthropy.
Think about an important promise in your life that you didn't keep. Why didn't you? Is it too late to keep it?
When he fails a second time to fulfill his promise to the boy, the author realizes that his pledge was motivated by his desire to do something big and impressive. If he had been less driven, he might have made a more achievable promise. How often do you create unfinished business for yourself by biting off more than you can chew?
"A lot can be accomplished by doing the right things, now, in the rhythm of your life." Do you agree? What does more good -- putting your efforts into a large project that helps lots of people or acting on the smaller opportunities for doing good that present themselves to you each and every day?
The Journey of a Lifetime
Themes: Einstein, Compassion, Human Connectedness
Has this book given you a perspective on your life that you find useful? What ideas are you most likely to take away or apply from the book?
Do you view the world through a self-centric lens, creating what Einstein called "a kind of optical delusion?" Why do you think Einstein urged human beings to "widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Is that a goal you would want to achieve?
At the end of the book, the author stops thinking of himself in terms of the roles he plays as husband, father, editor, son. and he begins thinking of himself in Thou terms, "as someone who could relate in his truest, fullest humanity to another human being." What are the roles in your life? Do you relate to others in terms of the particular roles you play -- or as a Thou?
The author spent an entire year attending to his unfinished business. How, in the course of our everyday lives, can we keep our load lean? What are some of things you might do to keep your unfinished business from accumulating?