A participant in one of my leadership development programs in Oklahoma wrote me this week giving tribute to his late mother and the impact she had on his life. It has obvious application for parents and for all of us who are committed to having a positive impact on those we serve and love. Whether a relationship with a family member, an employee, or an interaction with the cashier at the supermarket, remember, words matter.
A Tribute To Mom
Through my work in social services and as a college professor, I am in a unique position to observe human behaviors, and I often have opportunity to be a compassionate, listening ear for a younger generation. I see the long-term impact a parent’s negative words can have on individual self-worth. I share my story this year in hopes that parents realize the tremendous, long-term power their words can have.
Twenty-two years ago tonight the trajectory of my life changed. I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the night my mother passed from this life into the next. I am fortunate I had the opportunity to spend the last few hours with my mom, visiting and enjoying time together. I still remember the last words she spoke to me, “I love you, and I’m so very proud of you”. Her words are a cherished memory that continues to sweeten as time moves forward.
Each year on the anniversary of her death I find myself in a very introspective frame of mind, seeking to identify the areas of growth I have experienced in the previous twelve months. Through the years, I have come to recognize that the emotional turbulence brought about by my mom’s death, while deeply painful, has become the catalyst for personal growth. The turbulence I once feared has transmuted and emerged as a powerful wind providing lift that has enabled me to soar to new heights and allowing me to become the person I am.
This year the anniversary has been no different; it has been a time of remembrance and evaluation. As I consider the lessons learned, the personal growth I have achieved, and new concepts revealed, I realize that the greatest gift I ever received from my mom is not found in tangible things that can be held in the hand; instead, it is in the last words she spoke to me, “I love you, and I’m so very proud of you.”
I did not know it at the time, but her words would have a profound impact on my life and personal development, so much so that it has taken twenty-two years for me to become fully aware to what extent. In her last words she provided love, acceptance, and validation. Her words fostered a new personal freedom enabling me to continue to grow and evolve into the person I have always been meant to be. My mom was a very skilled wordsmith, always choosing her words carefully. I believe her last words to me were purposeful and deliberately selected, all the while knowing the long-term impact they would have.
What a powerful, extraordinary gift I received that night; one that continues to impact my life twenty-two years later. WORDS HAVE POWER! One lesson to share with others is this, parents have the ability to influence and shape their child’s life even in the parent’s absence. Parents, your words will do one of two things, they will provide empowerment or inflict rejection and pain. Choose your words carefully as they will influence the life of your child for many years to come.
I feel so very blessed to have had a parent who always tried to empower, even in her absence. Thank you for that gift mom, I miss you!
This week I visited my dear mother-in-law who now resides in a care facility in Edmonton. With her dementia, she has become, sadly, irritable, depressed, and apathetic about her life. As I sat with her at lunch, she spit out her food and complained profusely about the most cheerful and loving aide that sat beside her feeding another resident. I reminded Mom to make an effort to be grateful for the dedicated caregivers that surround her. She looked away in disgust, and continued to complain about the staff. I smiled at Jennifer, the caring caregiver across the table. “Some people have a bad day,” she said softly and graciously. “And some people have a bad day more often than others.”
Charles Dickens said, “I have always thought of Christmas as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. It’s the only time in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people around them as fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
While it’s undoubtedly noble to stop this time of year, to reach into our pockets and give of our time and money, the real caregivers are those who care all year long, day in and day out, including those who care for the elderly, for the sick, and for the troubled, who work tirelessly and humbly behind the scenes day after day. Here are three things I learned from caregivers who care for Mary and other residents with daily diligence and relentless attention. May these ideas inspire us all to care more – not just this time of year, but all year long. Caring, after all, is not done in a day. Caring is done daily.
1) S-l-o-w D-o-w-n. Speed is not conducive to caring. Jennifer and her colleagues move slowly with the seniors and they care slowly. Like good artists, good caregivers see the world more slowly. The pace of our lives does indeed impact the quality of our lives. Everywhere I go people are insanely busy all year long, spending hours looking down at phones and devices, driven by the incessant tyranny of the urgency, struggling to keep up with it all. Even the holiday season has become another frenetic whirlwind of parties and shopping and trying desperately to meet ever-increasing demands. I find it very interesting that in the midst of climate change, disruption and global warming, the philosopher Piero Ferrucci says we are simultaneously in the midst of a “global cooling.” Human relationships are becoming colder. Interactions with others are becoming more rushed and impersonal. Values such as commercialism and efficiency are taking on greater importance at the expense of caring and simple presence. Have you ever tried to be efficient and “hurried” with a person in need? How does continual “hurriedness” affect your kindness, your connections, and your ability to influence and care about others?
2) Be Present. It’s been said that the best present we can ever give anyone is to be present in the present. There are countless opportunities to be present to those around us – whether at the grocery store, in the hallway in our office building, or around the kitchen table. Being presentto life brings quality to life. How often have you been stressed, simply because you’re not where you want to be right now? Most of us are creatures of movement and noise, agonizing about the past or worrying about the future. All spiritual teachers remind us that the present moment is the only moment where life is lived and can be enjoyed. If we live in the past or the future, we will miss the very experience of life. There is no stress in the moment. Stress comes when we start thinking about the future or tormenting about the past. The only way to thoroughly and enjoyably appreciate life is to become truly and deeply present.
3) Stay grateful. We would all do well to take Dickens’ advice to slow down and attend to the people and the beauty and the life that surrounds us. We enrich our lives when we appreciate what makes it possible for us to have what we have, to be where we are, to appreciate what surrounds us. Open your eyes to the caring around you, not just this time of year, but all year long, and you will discover that caring is who we are at our very core. We simply have to pause long enough to notice it and be a part of it. Be thankful and filled with awe and appreciation, even if what you desire hasn’t arrived yet. Whatever holiday you celebrate this month, what we all share is the need for light in the darkest time of year. Gratitude brings light wherever you go. What we appreciate appreciates.
You don’t get in life what you want; you get in life what you give. Or, said another way: be careful what you fill because what you fill will one day spill.
I found the following quote, written by an English writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, on a Christmas card hand-delivered to me by a good friend last week: “Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting.”
Labor Day, Wikipedia tells us, “is a public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September… It honors the American labor movement; the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country… In Canada, Canadian trade unions are proud that this holiday was inspired by their efforts to improve workers’ rights.”
This Labor Day, I have put some reflection into the meaning of work in one’s life and how important work is to the soul. As Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century theologian, wrote, “To live well is to work well…”
There is a difference between a “job” and “work.” We may be forced to take a minimum wage job to pay the bills, but work is something else. Work comes from inside and is an expression of our soul. Work is what puts us in touch with others. Work is about contributing, being of service to the community. Work is creative. Work is about making the world a better place by the expression of our unique talents.
“Work,” writes Matthew Fox in The Reinvention of Work, “touches life itself. Good living and good working go together. Life and livelihood ought not to be separated but to flow from the same source, for both life and livelihood are about Spirit. Spirit means life, and both life and livelihood are about living in depth, living with meaning, purpose, joy, and a sense of contribution to the greater community… bringing life and livelihood back together.”
A stay-at-home mother with six children told me the other day that with her children returning to school, she felt a sense of emptiness, like her role as a mother didn’t have much value. I explained to her that the value in her work is not expressed in monetary terms. Indeed, much work in our culture is not paid at all. Perhaps even the most important work in our society is the work we don’t get paid for. For example, raising children, cooking meals, organizing youth activities, singing in a choir, cleaning up one’s neighborhood, tending a garden, planting a tree, volunteering in a community, mentoring a university student. Matthew Fox asks the question: How might these examples of good work be rewarded so that they are counted in our understanding of the gross national product (GNP)? For indeed, this kind of work – the kind we often don’t get paid for – is where true value lies.
I once heard an unemployed man say, “I’m only unemployed between 9-5.” Our lives are bigger than our jobs we get paid for. On this Labor Day weekend, I hope you will take a little time to reflect on some important questions:
- What is your real work?
- Where do you find meaning and significance and purpose in your contribution to the community and world around you?
- Can you bring more of your “real work” to your “paid work” – your job?
- For those of you who have employees, can you help them to find more of their real work in their jobs? You won’t have to motivate anyone once you find their real work.
Do you care enough to find out about the real work of the people around you? There’s nothing wrong with not getting paid to do your real work. At minimum we can be grateful for a job that enables us to do our real work at home.
We may not have a job. We may be retired. We may be unemployed. We may have a job that we don’t like. Or we may have a job where we get paid to do our real work. But we all have to work. Finding our real work is what makes life worth living.
In the fall of 2013, my sixty-one year-old brother, Hal, was in Vancouver to receive the award for Alberta’s Outstanding Family Physician. Three days before the award ceremony he had a seizure and a few days later came the grave diagnosis: a grade III Anaplastic Astrocytoma – an aggressive, inoperable tumor intersecting three lobes of his brain. The prognosis was grim. With no treatment, he would live an estimated three to four months; with aggressive radiation and chemotherapy, one to three years, and with a miracle, longer.
For the past two and half years I have traveled with Hal through what he has been calling his “Adventure with an Astrocytoma.” This so called ‘adventure’ was at first a grinding mix of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments, with accompanying aphasia, memory loss, itching rashes, seizures, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and so little energy that putting his feet on the floor in the morning can be called success. Hal’s limbs got skinny and his belly grew from the steroids that prevent brain swelling. With the medication experimentation, the days when he was able to get himself outside into the sunlight and around the block was a ‘Mount Everest’ accomplishment.
While I wouldn’t wish this hell on anyone, I am surprisingly grateful. Hal and I have spent more time together in the past thirty months than we have the previous thirty years. We’ve done some reminiscing; we’ve said “thank you” and have forgiven each other. Every time that we are together, we now say that we love each other. And we make time to hang out when he simply can’t get out of bed, can’t utter a word, and I have no clue what to say. This whole imperfect and human experience of being together in an awkward and clumsy way has somehow been a blessing. This reminder of the impermanence of life has strangely increased my life’s quality. My marriage and my relationships with my daughters have improved as I’ve slowed down and made a little more room to be a bit more present a little more often with those that matter most to me. Being open to the pain of Hal’s experience has deepened my experience of being alive, what matters in life, and what it means, more fully, to be human.
Below are six lessons I have learned thus far on this adventure with my brother and his astrocytoma:
1) Don’t procrastinate getting to your bucket list. If you have some things you are planning to do when you retire, don’t wait. Do it now. The preciousness of life is not realized in the future. It is realized only in the present. There is no guarantee that the future will meet your current expectations.
2) Take time to connect. Life is so short. Every relationship as you know it today eventually ends. Don’t wait for the end to be near to appreciate what is here now. Besides, we never know how abrupt and unplanned that ending can come. You really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Don’t miss opportunities to be present to the people around you.
3) Embrace the realization of life’s impermanence. “Impermanence is life’s only promise to us, and she keeps it with ruthless impeccability,” writes the poet Jennifer Welwood. The older you get, the more opportunities arise to be with people who are in the sunset of their life. Be with people when they are dying whenever you can. Embrace the experience of dying along with the pain, and your life, and the lives of those still around you, will be enriched.
4) Take regular sabbaticals. In today’s world, with its relentless focus on success and productivity, we have lost touch with the balance between work and rest. Constantly striving, so many of us feel exhausted and deprived in the midst of abundance. Carve out regular time each week for rest, renewal, time with friends and family, and a few moments for yourself.
5) Take care of your health. When you have you health, you have a thousand wishes. When you don’t, you have but one. Don’t take your health for granted. Good health is a source of wealth. Being free of pain is one of life’s most vital blessings. While you can’t necessarily control your health, you can certainly influence it – with good habits. Later life will test your disciplines.
6) Renew your faith. Times of loss afford us immense opportunities to renew, strengthen, and deepen our own personal and individual experience of spirituality. Take time each day to commune with nature and witness the intelligence within every living thing. Spend time in a sanctuary away from the demands of the world. Sit silently and watch a sunset, or listen to the sound of the ocean or a steam, or simply smell the scent of a flower.
The reminder of impermanence awakens you. The awareness of death magnifies what’s important in your life. Remember to stop and embrace fully that which surrounds you. The life you have today won’t last forever, and remembering this will help you appreciate and grasp it more deeply. And in turn, you will amplify your impact while enriching and nourishing the lives of those you lead and enlarge. There is no better personal or leadership development than coming to terms with your humanity.
When we moved to Cochrane, Alberta to raise our children in 1991, there were no traffic lights in this small foothills community. Today, there are more than fifteen and it takes about five times longer to cover the same distance through town. You no longer buy fly rods at the fly shop. You buy them at Canadian Tire. The fly shop has gone out of business. The two locally owned bookstores, the best you could find anywhere, no longer exist. We now have a Walmart, Staples, and Sport Check. This little town has changed a great deal in the past quarter century.
I’m all for change. Change is not only a good thing; change is required. Change is an integral part of life. “In times of change,” wrote the philosopher Erick Hoffer, “learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” What I’ve been reflecting on though, is that as necessary as change is, not all change is necessary. Not all change is healthy. Whether you are renovating your home, reorganizing your workplace or redesigning your organization, starting a new relationship or new job, moving, adjusting to being new parents, loving your parents through the aging process, coming to grips with a life-threatening illness, or maybe several of these things at once – remember to ask one fundamental question of yourself and of those you are entrusted to lead: “What are we committed to preserve in the midst of this change?”
While reflecting on the changes that are happening in my life, I developed a list of what I’m committed to preserve. In the middle of the changes you are going through, what are you and those you live and work with committed to preserve? Here’s my list:
1) Character. Character means knowing what’s right and doing what’s right, even when it causes you discomfort. Character is doing what’s honest and honorable, even when costs you financially. If your character is situational, that is, if it changes with the whims of your circumstances, you won’t have the foundation of self-respect to get through the change.
2) Faith. Faith is the inner sanctuary where hidden permanence and power reside. My faith strengthens and supports me, allowing me to lean on a compassionate force beyond myself. My faith gives me a compass in the wilderness, a private north star to navigate the journey.
3) Family. Family is the base camp on life’s Mount Everest ascent. Family is where you stock up, replenish, and take shelter from the storm. Family gives you a place to come home to. Family – whether immediate, extended, or inner circle of most trusted friends – gives you the stability and constancy you need to deal with whatever life throws at you. Change can be lonely, but it can’t be done alone.
4) Health. Regardless of whatever changes are happening in the tyranny of the urgency around me, rigorous healthy habits sustain me. Ensuring that I get adequate rest and exercise, spending time in the sunlight and in nature, and eating food that strengthens rather than depletes, gives me the energy needed to thrive in change and embrace new possibilities.
5) Traditions. What I admire about the RCMP, the armed forces, and other law enforcement and emergency services agencies is that they are steeped in tradition and fortitude. But families, communities, and individuals must also maintain traditions. Traditions and strong rituals keep people anchored and stable during the storms of life.
6) Caring. It doesn’t cost to care. Caring is about taking time for the people in your life that matter, even if you don’t have the time. Caring is about paying attention to the little things, despite the chaos that may surround and pull you into the fray. Caring is about staying connected, even when the world seems to be falling apart.
7) Attitude. “Everything,” wrote Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author, “can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Whether it’s an attitude of caring or an attitude of building, when the world around you is a problem finder, you can always be a solution maker.
So… in the midst of all the changes happening all around you, what are you committed to preserve?