IF YOU GO
• Who: Wes Moore, author of "The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates"
• What: Public presentation
• When: March 18 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
• Where: Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences
• Cost: Free to the public. RSVP at 901-452-1776 or facinghistory.org/communityconversations.
What makes you ... you?
Our lives are a mixed bag, an ecosystem of influences that help shape us. We are who we are because of our choices -- I decide, therefore I am -- and the people around us -- I was loved, therefore I am.
But how thin are those lines? If you're a model citizen and well-made businessman, how close did you ever come to a life full of misdemeanors and lies? How right was film director Frank Capra? That with but just a little tinkering in our past, our lives go from Jimmy Stewart wonderful to nothing.
"I don't want readers to ever forget the high stakes of these stories -- and of all our stories: that life and death, freedom and bondage, hang in the balance of every action we take," writes Wes Moore.
Moore is the author of "The Other Wes Moore," one of the most important books in 21st century America.
Years ago, Wes Moore met another man named Wes Moore. Both were born near one another in Baltimore. Both grew up fatherless, both ran into street corner trouble, both had odds stacked against them.
But like teeth on a saw, one Wes Moore goes up while the other drops through the floor.
The author Wes Moore became a Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow, honored veteran and nationally-known writer.
The other Wes Moore wound up in jail, serving a life sentence for murdering off-duty Baltimore police Sgt. Bruce Prothero in a jewelry store robbery.
Why? Given similar circumstances and social environments, why did one Wes Moore flourish and the other self-destruct?
Rob Philyaw, Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge, thinks about those questions constantly.
"Juvenile Court sits at the intersection of juvenile justice, youth success and community safety," he said.
Philyaw is part of a group bringing Moore to Chattanooga on Tuesday to speak to the public. It's free, and begins at 7 p.m. at the Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences.
Moore will tell his story, which links the larger questions that matter so: how can we guide our young people away from the dead-ends of life and towards self-fulfillment? What is the nature of influence? How much do personal choices weigh against a larger social landscape?
"But for a few bad decisions, things could be dramatically different for him and for the other Wes Moore," Philyaw said.
If there is one event you take your teenager to this year, make it this one.
"I expect a standing room-only crowd and am hopeful that it is a huge success," Philyaw said.
Moore's story has been read on campuses and classrooms across America and has wowed everyone from Oprah to a 15-year-old in juvenile detention who said it was the first book he'd ever read, front to back.
Why? Because he doesn't preach. He doesn't deal with absolutes. Life is complex and layered and sometimes the good we do is mixed with evil and vice versa. His story deals less with judgment and more with understanding, especially the humility that comes from realizing that perhaps each of us is only a few decisions away from either greatness or tragedy.
"I urge you to internalize the meanings of this remarkable story and unleash your own power," talk-show host and author Tavis Smiley wrote at the book's end.
It's no mystery. The things we know to be good -- fathers, family, mentors, a village raising a child -- are still good in Moore's world.
Yet his book also makes clear the dire need for intervention. If you saw a young boy walking down the road who suddenly caught on fire -- literally in flames -- you'd do everything to stop the burning. Yet such fires are being internalized by thousands of young men in America, whose inner worlds crave some life-saving kindness.
"Young boys are more likely to believe in themselves if they know that there's someone, somewhere, who shares that belief," Moore writes.
The end of his book includes 48 pages of organizations across the country that help build community, inspire young people and offer them a larger vision of life.
"Small interactions and effortless acts of kindness can mean the difference between failure and success, pain and pleasure -- or becoming the people we loathe or love to become," Smiley writes.
Perhaps the best thing we ever do with our life is to get involved with someone else's.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.