Life’s summits and valleys

Reflections on hope, connections and unsung heroes
Dougteschner Feature
Doug Teschner

I recently wrote about embracing change as my wife and I emptied our house of 36 years. But sometimes we face changes we cannot avoid — like the recent death of my brother at age 71.

David was a vibrant and loving personality, a retired Episcopal priest who had the misfortune of suffering from an aggressive cancer. We spoke daily by phone in his final months, and I was struck by his positivity and always asking about my day. Some 300 attended his funeral, including 17 family members who came down with COVID, including me. On the positive side, the illness kept us talking!

I recovered in time for a planned trip to the Braver Angels national convention on the sacred ground of Gettysburg, Pa. Braver Angels ( envisions an America with respectful embrace of political disagreements, where civic friendship flourishes and competing perspectives strengthen our nation.

At the conference opening, nearly 700 in attendance were asked why we came. I wrote, “I worry that my grandchildren will not enjoy the benefits of this country that I have.” Are we headed to another civil war, as happened on that very soil? Hopefully not, which is why I volunteer with this national movement for civic renewal.

I had the honor to address the delegates on changing our politics based on my experience organizing activities with the N.H. House of Representatives. I quoted Gandhi: “If we want to change the world, we need to change ourselves.” Vision, relationship-building and persistence are required. Take a risk, put yourself out there, bring your whole authentic self, positive energy, a willingness to learn and grow, and a dose of humility.

I recalled a lesson from many years of mountaineering; its essence is less about getting to the top and more about embracing the experience. A united country where people with different opinions treat each other respectfully may seem like a very high summit these days, but each step can make a difference. Jonathan Rauch, a conference speaker, said, “Helping people to feel empowered and not feel helpless is the core of the Braver Angels work.”

I found similar inspiration listening to author Amanda Ripley on the “On Being” podcast, suggesting ways to overcome conflict and build trust. Host Krista Tippett called this “spiritual work that can bring hope, dignity, faith, joy and wonder to situations where there is intolerance of others.”

With my brother gone, I am committed to stay close to his sons, and I traveled to Minnesota to visit my nephew John and his family. On the plane, I noticed a familiar-looking man coming down the aisle. He called out my name and said he had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso in 2008 when I was the country director. When we disembarked, David Neil introduced his family. That was special and a reminder of the connections we make and how we touch others.

On another flight, a baby began to cry and, when he looked my way, I waved and made faces; he stopped and smiled back. I was thanked by the mother, but knew I had likely benefited as much as anyone.

I listen to NPR, but doom and gloomin the news (including events in Ukraine where I once lived) can depress my mood. However, the “My Unsung Hero” segment always brings joy — stories of someone touching another’s life in a small but meaningful way. I try to embrace this in daily life. For example, making sure the young woman who so positively welcomed me as a blood donor knew that she was appreciated.

The camp counselor who guided me up Mount Washington in 1963 is another of my unsung heroes. That first hike led to a lifetime of mountain adventures. I recently took advantage of a break from volunteering as a naturalist at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lakes of the Clouds hut to trek up to our highest New Hampshire summit, celebrating that 60-year memory.

I sure miss calls with my brother. My therapist Kristin said, “It is not that grief gets smaller, but that we get bigger. There is so much beauty in the end of someone’s life.” I think both she and David are my unsung heroes, too.

We each have an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, including our own. Don’t underestimate your impact!

Douglass P. Teschner, founder of Growing Leadership LLC, can be reached at

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