Breadcrumb Lessons

May 02, 2017

Nick Stoneman talks about the power of looking back and making sense of our past as we reflect on our futures. 

Chapel Talk
Nick Stoneman, SSM President
April 25, 2017

Watch the talk or read the text.


I want to take the time this morning to have each of you – teachers and students included - think about your future by thinking about your past.

Let me explain by calling on the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. It is a tale about a brother and sister who are left to fend for themselves in the woods by their evil stepmother and leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind them to help them find their way home.

From the tale, the idea of a trail of breadcrumbs has, over the years, become a metaphor for helping one find one’s way.

I believe that each of us has a whole set of breadcrumbs that can guide us through life. These breadcrumbs lie in the midst of past experiences that collectively lead us each in a direction we may not know.

Each of you has a fascinating journey ahead of you that can go in any number of directions, and, like so many, you can look ahead and try to see what each prospective opportunity can bring, and base your decision on pursuing it on how it looks and feels.

But wouldn’t it be better if we charted our paths, our next steps, based upon what we know about ourselves, from what we have learned from studying our pasts?

What is so interesting, and what I want you each to find, are those nuggets of clues. And they are subtle, often dismissed, but collectively make a greater whole and offer a way to really chart your course in life. They are your breadcrumbs.

So how do you find them?

You do so through self-reflection. Look back and ask yourself, “What has occurred in my life that really ‘struck me’?”

Certainly there will be specific events that come to mind, but don’t lose sight of the really small clues that come to mind through your senses. Think about:

  • How you are stimulated by what you see.
  • How your sense of smell can affect you emotionally
  • What the many sounds and all its different forms has done for you.
  • And what you have done physically, with all the potential your body has to offer.

 When you start thinking about this, and writing down what you have found, you will see patterns emerge. Messages and clues start to surface. It is almost like you are both the main suspect in a detective show, and also the detective at the same time!

You need to take heed of what you find. Your mind, your body and your very being are telling you something. They are giving you deeply felt reactions to aspects of your life, reactions that weren’t planned, organized, or even expected – but through their recollection they are revealing your innate nature. You are getting glimpses at the heart of who you are and what makes you “tick”.

If you do this, if you explore this catalog of items that make up your life, you will find that an inner compass can begin to emerge. You will have these breadcrumbs of your past come together to serve as the markers for the pathways of your future.

Honestly, it’s a pretty fascinating process – and it is ongoing. We all need to do this throughout our lives as we grow and learn and discover and experience even more of life’s bounty and challenges. It is not a test or something that you “turn in”. It is about you getting to know you.

It should come as no surprise that I have spent some time doing this, so let me give you some of my own examples, both small and large of some items that “struck me” over the course of my life. Some may seem trivial and easily dismissed, but doing so misses the point. We recall our past because it meant something:


  • The feeling of independence and pride I experienced as a 6th grader when I ate at our town’s local deli’s lunch counter all by myself.
  • Resting on the side of the Appalachian Trail with my dad and together listening to the peaceful and calming sound of rain as it fell on the trees way off in the distant forest.
  • I remember working on a farm one summer in Vt. The smell of a hayfield, the itch of a hay bale on my forearms, and the teamwork and camaraderie that all comes from bailing hay stay with me today.
  • As I hammered in the last shingle, the deep and peaceful feeling of exhaustion I felt as I watched the sunset from the roof of a small building I built.
  • I remember seeing my mom sitting on the side of her bed crying because she had just heard the news of the death of Martin Luther King. I remember trying to comfort her, but also being in awe of a man whose life was so important if could affect a person he didn’t even know.
  • Learning in 7th grade how to do a Roman Numeral outline to organize information. In one class, I felt the jumble of information in my mind become organized in a way I had never experienced before.
  • When I cut grass as a young boy, I remember being excited about the chance to take a broad expanse of lawn and follow any pattern I wanted to creatively get it all cut – and I remember the deep satisfaction of seeing it all done.
  • The tears I cried when I experienced for my first time as an athlete that giving it your all does not mean you will win.
  • Fascination of learning in a single drawing class in HS about how a vanishing point works and having the world of perspective come to life.
  • The awe I felt watching my first multi-media production that synchronized five slide projectors of color photos with the classical music of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
  • My excitement as a middle-schooler over seeing a tiny hummingbird hovering up close before me.
  • The dizzying and incredible experience when I held my first child – and my second and my third.
  • My visceral reaction of defiance when being told by my college counselor that getting into the college I wanted to attend was unachievable.
  • The enjoyment I felt in meeting new and truly interesting people when I worked as a roughneck on an oil rig in Texas after high school.
  • The sorrow I felt as an 9 year old when I was saying good bye to my big brother as he climbed down the fire escape to run away from home.
  • Time and again being more interested in the success of others in ultra-marathon races than in my own performance.
  • The continual uplifting effect that music has had in my life for as far back as I can remember – listening to the Beatles while my dad and brothers and I played Scrabble on the living room floor, going to a memorable Rolling Stones concert, hearing one of my brother, as part of St. Thomas School Choir, sing in its Lessons and Carols service, and playing bluegrass guitar with another brother at one of his gigs at a bar in Vail, CO.
  • Color - in architecture, in clothing, paintings, photos, in nature has always drawn me in and evoked strong emotions.
  • My immediate desire to reach out and help and older man and his wife as they struggled to carry their suitcases up a set of stairs in a crowded train station while everyone passed them by.
  • Running at night several miles outside of a town into the countryside somewhere in South Dakota and then stopping to lie down and stare up at the sky, overflowing with hundreds upon hundreds of stars, leaving me feeling a part of something magnificent and in awe of the universe.
  • Without notice, feeling my eyes well up with tears as I stood at Arlington Cemetery and stared out across all the white gravestone crosses of our nation’s veterans.


So what have I gleaned from my own process? What do my trail of breadcrumbs tell me?

  • Music – of all kinds – is really important to me for it inspires, calms, energizes – and evokes lots of memories and emotions.
  • Design and color and their creative combination inspires me –and is really important to have as part of my life
  • Looking out for others and helping is an innate part of who I am.
  • Nature – being in and amongst it for all its sounds, smells, inhabitants and beauty calms me, inspires me, makes me feel part of something greater.
  • Working with my hands and being able to create something is deeply satisfying
  • The need to have challenges before me that seem unattainable is a real motivator.
  • And the list goes on.


This deciphering is a fascinating process. Each of you have your own, very personal, parts of your life that struck you. And as you can see, they can be as simple as the elation over identifying a hummingbird, or as deep as my MLK example – but each of what I have shared “struck and stuck” all these years later. And there is a reason for that. Each meant something to me – and by so doing, left a clue for me to consider as I reflected on my future.

So look ahead by looking behind. Consider keeping your own, personal “Things that Struck Me” journal. Not a lengthy diary, just occurrences from the past and from your day to day life that inspired you, stirred you, provoked you, drew you in, or made a lasting impression.

Your entries will provide you with the breadcrumbs you need to chart your future and find deeply felt happiness. It will be a gift to yourself, from yourself, for yourself – and your life will be all the better for it.

Thank you.