Know your audience: In my system engineering teaching days, I would often present material to management groups and engineering groups. Clearly each had a different focus. Management was looking for ways to justify a particular approach, whereas engineering was looking for the technical know how needed to implement that approach. Two different sets of material. The same is true for writing. Who will read my book? What will they be looking for? It’s my story, yes, but I have to be cognizant of who will want to read it.
As part of our series about authors who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Fargnoli.
Tom Fargnoli is a person who is deeply passionate about his purpose in life. His background consists of systems engineer, magician, deacon and now author. Writing his most recent book called “The Deacon: An Unexpected Life” brought him to his new career path of being an author.
“The Deacon: An Unexpected Life” is about his wife’s sudden and tragic story of suicide and how grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide is quite possibly harder then any other kind of loss. Tom states that when the “S” word is mentioned people have a tendency to shut down. That specific reaction is something that Tom is on a mission to change. This is why he is constantly on a mission to educate his audience about suicide and all proceeds from his book will be donated to suicide awareness. Continue reading for an exclusive interview.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The story that brought me to this new career path is essentially the story that is captured in the book, The Deacon — An Unexpected Life. I am a retired engineer, teacher, magician, and an ex-deacon in the Catholic Church. I was a lead software and systems engineer for over 40 years. I was happily married for 40 years and studied to become a deacon for over 5 years, and enjoyed serving as a deacon for 5 years. It was my dream to be a deacon in my retirement. Life was good — wife, home, children, grandchildren, health, retirement and an amazing ministry. But then, unimaginable tragedy and horror came to my family — the circumstances of which led me into this career path.
My wife, suddenly and tragically, took her own life. Grieving the loss of a spouse, or any loved one, is devastating but as I quickly learned, grieving is much more complex when it involves losing your love one to suicide. Whenever the “S” word is mentioned, people just shut down. They don’t know what to say or do, they avoid you. In a way I felt shunned. When I needed people the most, they were not there. That’s why I say the grieving was more complex.
Being alone was one thing, but this loneliness, after being together for 45 years, was unbearable. But thanks to God and my faith, I was making progress with my grieving, but then, it got worse.
I had to make a choice! If I was to remain being a deacon, something I loved very much, I had to commit to a life of celibacy and, essentially, to a life alone. I actually made this commitment before I was ordained — I knew about this rule! And the crazy thing about it?
My wife was the one who was against that rule. I told her that I would most likely die before her so why worry about that. I mean most men die before their wives — that’s what I thought.
But now, as time went on, facing the reality of that rule was like cutting my arm off. In the midst of my grieving, having to decide whether to stay a deacon and be alone or pursue another loving relationship — which, after 45 years, was all I ever knew. Both paths were paths of love!
This battle went on for almost 2 years — I couldn’t decide. It drove me crazy –in fact it landed me in the hospital for open-heart surgery. It was in my recuperation of that surgery that I experienced true loneliness and the decision was actually made for me.
My faith was truly being tested, but I managed to hold onto it. But with that decision, came something I never expected. Something worse than loneliness — Rejection. Rejection from the church, from some priests, even from some of my brother deacons. I felt like I had leprosy — a feeling of being shunned again! The first from the nature of being a suicide survivor, and the second from my religious community. I never left the church! My decision was to leave the diaconate, but I was treated as if I left the church.
Through all of this, my psychologist kept telling me to write things down, so I did! I wrote about my grieving, about suicide, about the decision, about the rejection, about all of these unexpected events. So what began as a cathartic exercise, thanks to the Holy Spirit, has turned into my book! And now, thanks to so many letters from people who have read and benefited from my book, I am an author!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began being an author?
After writing The Deacon — An Unexpected Life, it was my hope that, in sharing all my unexpected and unfortunate events, and still managing to keep my faith, I would inspire others, amidst their chaos and pain, to find glimmers of hope, faith, love and peace. In fact, it was my current wife, Dorothy, who after reading a draft of the book told me that people will be helped by my story. And, sure enough, I started receiving letters.
I was amazed to see how many people were touched by my story. Some people related to the grieving and isolation, some to losing a loved ones from suicide, some who have experienced rejection and some who have faced tough decisions. They shared with me how they were inspired to reach out to their loved ones — make that long overdue call or text. They felt a joy come over them as they strived to be more compassionate. It didn’t matter if they were religious or even attended church, they shared a sense of peace come over them through their pain, their loneliness, and their rejection.
Many people who knew me, after reading my book, reached out to me to share some of the problems they were experiencing. They would have never shared with me some of these problems, but now they wanted to share them with me. I am the same person I was before writing the book, but now after they became aware of some of the things I went through, they were driven to open up to me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, to be honest I am just getting started. As mentioned, my experiences became a book! I’m not sure it was as funny as it was just my lack of experience but after I wrote my book, I assumed that a particular marketing company was legitimate and would help me sell my book. The mistake I made was in not doing my research and in particular, not understanding their particular social media methods they were describing. The bottom line is that I wasted a lot of money. So, the lesson learned was to understand first, before investing. But things turned out well for me and I have learned a lot about publishing and marketing as I move forward as an author.
Can you describe how you or your book is making a significant social impact?
Confucius once said that it is better to save one life than to build a seven story pagoda. You know what’s amazing? We put too much time and effort into building pagodas. We live in our heads and not in our hearts. My book is about a journey from head to heart — we can all make that journey.
We all suffer from time to time — now, with COVID-19, more than ever. We need to know that we are loved — in fact, we are loved more than our ability to understand. We need to reach out to others and build relationships with them and with God. Yes, my book is making a significant social impact, especially when my readers become more compassionate to those who are grieving, to those who have lost someone to suicide, and to those who feel rejected.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A friend of mine gave a copy of my book to his Uncle Mike. After Mike read the book, he asked my friend if he could have my phone number. My friend gave him my number and one day as I was driving, I received a call from his Uncle Mike.
Uncle Mike went on to tell me that on the same day he finished my book, he visited his doctor and received bad news. He had liver cancer. He told me that my book actually helped him handle that news. I just listened to his story in amazement. He told me that, after reading my book, it was clear I had a strong faith and the interplay between me and my guardian angel (Richard), made him feel closer to God and he felt that despite the cancer, he felt good about his relationship with God and those close to him.
After that conversation with Uncle Mike, I knew my wife was right — people will be helped by my story. After a few weeks I inquired about my friend’s Uncle Mike. He was doing well and his prognosis was good.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
A general awareness with associated actions would go a long way to address the problems I am trying to expose. First, with respect to grieving, it is important for individuals, and society as a whole, to understand the dynamics of grieving. Not everyone grieves the same way. Each person’s grief journey is unique and there are various stages a person will go through from denial to depression to loneliness to anger and finally to acceptance. Regardless of the stage, however, someone who is grieving needs compassion and support. All too often unfortunately, we avoid the grieving person, we are uncomfortable around them. They most likely want to talk about the one they lost, but no one seems willing to do so, even close friends and family. We have to change this — we somehow have the impression that grief is out of place in our society.
Secondly, when you add suicide to this situation, the grieving gets worse. Being a suicide survivor (one who loses a loved one to suicide) is like having leprosy. As I mentioned, whenever the “S” word is mentioned, people just shut down. They don’t know what to say or do, they avoid you. Most people, friends and family included, do not understand that the vast majority of people who die by suicide are people who were suffering so terribly that they saw no other choice but to kill themselves. Unfortunately, people actually blame suicidal persons and even their families and friends for an act over which they had no control. In fact, and I sure found this to ring true, many close friends and family tend to shy away from suicide survivors other than a casual, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Anything I can do, just call.’ They simply try to avoid discussing the event but unfortunately, most suicide survivors need to talk about it.
I would tell your readers that, if they encounter someone who lost a loved one to suicide, they should never assume they understand the cause of suicide because in most cases they probably don’t. They should be aware that suicide survivors are grieving and that their grieving may be much more intense and difficult than ‘normal’ grieving. It’s more difficult because many people believe that those who died of suicide are weak, that they have committed an unforgivable sin, or that they could have avoided suicide if they had faced their problems.
They should show as much compassion to suicide survivors as possible. Hopefully society can change their attitudes toward suicide.
Finally, I would hope that my book may change how the Catholic Church treats a deacon who loses his wife. After my wife died, I took two years to discern the direction that I chose and, yes, I chose a path that required me to leave the diaconate. I did not want to leave but I did not want to be alone for the rest of my life. Being in a relationship was all I knew. Do I think I could have stayed a deacon even though I wanted another relationship that could lead to marriage? Yes. The church ordained me when I was already married. I passed all the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual tests. I spent almost six years in formation, being developed in four dimensions: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. I was an active deacon for almost five years and my service was well known across all the ministries in which I served. What has changed? I lost my wife. I was laicized in order to have another relationship and remarry. And now, having done everything that was asked of me, I was remarried in the Catholic Church, which I love. Do I think this rule should be examined? Yes, it absolutely should be examined. I believe the church should look at these situations on a case-by-case basis. It doesn’t matter that I can be an effective deacon again nor does it matter that I come with experience and a good reputation, having served in the hospitals, nursing homes, at funerals, at the parish, and in the classroom (child and adult). None of that matters, for I am lumped in with all those who chose to leave their vocation as well as those who were asked or told to leave their vocation.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you give an example?
I believe a leader is someone who you follow based on what they do, not just on what they say. Listen, Jesus taught about love and compassion with his stories and parables, but he backed up his stories by giving his life for us — us, not just those who were close to him but to all of us — just as we are, with all our imperfections.
I would also define leadership as a journey. In the workplace, you have different teams, projects, situations, and organizations will require you to apply all your skill, education and experience in different ways. Each day is different and what works today may not work tomorrow — you have to adapt as the terrain changes. If you don’t anticipate a bumpy road and prepare for it, utilizing all your skills and understanding, your journey and the journeys of those that you lead may come to a premature end.
A true leader is a servant — he or she serves those who follow them, setting the direction and then guiding and supporting them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started writing” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
I am relatively new to writing but from the perspective of letters I received on my books, and on performance evaluations on course material I created when I was an engineer, I would include the following five guidelines:
- Know your audience: In my system engineering teaching days, I would often present material to management groups and engineering groups. Clearly each had a different focus. Management was looking for ways to justify a particular approach, whereas engineering was looking for the technical know how needed to implement that approach. Two different sets of material. The same is true for writing. Who will read my book? What will they be looking for? It’s my story, yes, but I have to be cognizant of who will want to read it.
- Keep it Simple: Sometimes, being a writer, we tend to strive for elaborate ways to describe things instead of a simple approach. Perhaps it’s because we feel we have to justify our knowledge of techniques. Of course, this is related to the audience we are writing for, but for me, simple is best. For example, rather than describing an ecclesiastic doctrine, I will describe a rule of the church.
- Move Your Readers: It’s easy to describe a sequence of events, but it is more challenging to “move” your readers as you do. For example, in my book, The Deacon, I describe what it was like being a hospital chaplain in a way where the reader feels he or she is in that role. While in the hospital visiting patients, I received a call from the woman in charge of patient care. She told me that there’s been a house fire and that the parents survived, but their daughter didn’t make it. She asked me to go to the ER and console the parents until their priest arrives. I described my walk to the ER that day in a way that the reader felt that he or she was making that walk, building the tension as I got closer and closer to the ER.
- Choose the Path with a Heart: When writing, an author can go down many paths with regard to creating the appropriate scene. We all face tough decisions from time to time. Reasoning which path is the best path to take can be a challenge. Blaise Pascal, one of my favorite writers, argues that reason is fine, but the heart has its own reason — reason that the mind does not understand. So Blaise would say, when faced with a big decision, “Choose the path with a heart.” This advice goes hand in hand with knowing your audience and in a desire to move them. Pick the path that moves the reader and touches their heart.
- Pray First- Write Second: With me, my faith is paramount, so the best advice I can give is to pray first, write second. Most of us have spurts of creativity — where do they come from? I believe very strongly that they come from the master creator. So, for me, I pray for those spurts of creativity. I remember when formulating my thoughts for The Deacon. All the material was out there for I lived through it all but needed a way to organize it in a way to interest and move my readers. I truly believe that the idea of using my guardian angel as part of my story was divine intervention — possibly even through my real guardian angel. “Thanks Richard!”
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This is a tough question. Naturally we can improve in so many ways that could benefit people, but I think I will stay with the theme of my book, namely in helping people find hope through all the chaos and pain in their lives. I would create a special group called Hope. I would start requesting donations to develop a staff that fields calls from people who are lonely, depressed, grief stricken, rejected, or just about any condition that requires a friendly voice to talk with. The staff will eventually employ various levels of expertise and provide resources as deemed appropriate to the individual who calls. This can range from a weekly schedule of talking to an assigned care giver to professional assistance for more involved situations. In addition to responding to callers, Hope will offer courses and presentations on-line designed to instill a positive outlook on life, drawing from, but not limited to, psychological, philosophical and religious resources.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many Life Lesson quotes that I love and that are relevant to me. I will list three that have been most relevant in my life and that are aligned with my writing objectives:
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” — C. S. Lewis
“ To Have Succeeded
To laugh often and love much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
And the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics
And endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give one’s self;
To leave the world a little better,
Whether by a healthy child,
A garden patch,
Or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm
And sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier
Because you have lived …
This is to have succeeded.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Merton Prayer:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” — Thomas Merton
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Pope Francis! Yes! I would love to sit and have breakfast with him and discuss my book, The Deacon. I already sent him a copy so hopefully he had time to read it and now our discussion would be focused on an outdated rule that prevents me from continuing to serve as a deacon because I chose to marry again. I would tell him that when I was in Italy, in a small church in Taormina, Sicily, I saw a small shine of Padre Pio. I always liked his simple prayer, “Pray, Trust, and Don’t Worry.” I knelt down at that shine and prayed that he would help me be a deacon again. I would tell the Pope that Padre Pio set this meeting up. I would tell him that I miss serving as a deacon — working with the Holy Spirit to construct homilies, doing funeral services, baptizing, providing marriage preparation, conducting Communion services at the nursing homes, and of course, assisting the priest on the Altar during Mass. Finally I would humbly implore his benevolence to reinstate me as a deacon in the Catholic Church. I served my parish well as a deacon and would love the opportunity to serve again as a deacon.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Email: [email protected]
Facebook: Tom Fargnoli
Proceeds from the book go toward suicide awareness.