You might be dismayed to learn the number of times that I’ve been told over the past year that I am “brave.”
My feat of daring? Letting my hair return to its natural colour.
On the weekend my husband was told many times that he was brave.
His courageous act? Performing a stand-up comedy routine for the first time.
If each of us were to create a “bravery spectrum,” we would place different actions in different places.
For those with a fear of public speaking, a stand-up comedy routine would be off-the-charts. For others, it might be more in the middle. Most people would agree that it takes guts to be vulnerable in front of an audience that way.
But my hair colour? Please. Let’s not even.
There are people who perform acts of bravery truly worthy of our admiration.
First responders who run toward danger. Firefighters, police, paramedics, and members of our military who put their lives on the line every day.
Volunteers who work in vulnerable countries around the world, healing the sick or wounded, building wells, providing food.
Refugees who leave behind everything they know and start over in a place where everything is foreign to them.
Staff and volunteers who work with the vulnerable people right in our own back yards, supporting the homeless, encouraging those affected by mental health issues of addictions.
Single parents who juggle work and family, doing their best to provide for their loved ones.
For the second consecutive year at my church, we were given a Star Word. It’s word to focus on, work through, or look for in the coming year.
We select it in much the same way a person picks a card from the deck during a card trick. The words written on pieces of paper placed upside-down in a plate, and we pick one without knowing what we’re going to get.
This was mine.
If I focus on it, work on it, and look for it, 2020 could be a jubilant year!
The crowd crammed into pews until there was no elbow room. And then the crowd crammed in some more. When every inch of every pew was full, ushers scurried to bring extra chairs to the aisles, front to back.
An overflowing multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-cultural assembly gathered to celebrate the life of Alex McKeague, a man who lived 80-plus years to the fullest. “I’ve got to learn to live like Alex,” I thought.
If I dare.
It is not an easy road to extra chairs at your funeral.
To live like Alex, I would need to take action and not say, “I’m sure someone else will do it.”
To live like Alex, I would need to speak up for what is right, even when it is not the popular option.
To be truly alive like Alex, I would need to be the voice in the wilderness crying out for changes to make the world more compassionate, equitable, peaceful.
Alex founded the Carlington Chaplaincyin Ottawa to help feed and nurture residents of a challenged neighbourhood. He gave them more than food; he gave them potential.
Alex collected skates, tennis racquets, or hockey equipment for children in need. He gave them more than sports equipment; he gave them inclusion.
Alex rode his bike when he could, even during draining chemotherapy treatments. He gave us more than clean air; he gave us inspiration.
Alex tapped into some mysterious energy-force we would all love to find. Alex couldn’t coexist peacefully with injustices. He couldn’t overlook a need. He did more good work in a week than many people do in a year, or even a lifetime.
Sounds good. Sounds like what we all should be doing.
But most of us don’t. I don’t.
Most of us set up a wall of defensive excuses. I do.
I don’t have time today. There are programs in place for that. I’m afraid. That person is getting what he deserves.
Alex took action to change things when sticking to the status quo would have been easier—the tempting, deliciously attractive, effortless, risk-free status quo. He bravely stepped in where others feared to tread.
And he had another gift. He could lay out the difficult truths to resistant audiences and achieve the miracle of illumination. When Alex spoke in his quiet way, his soft handling of the hard truths encouraged us to join his vision for a better, more just world.
His quiet words held loud power.
Alex showed that deep, long-lasting happiness is a paradox. We think that to find happiness we need to focus on ourselves, and our emotional comforts, and material bonuses. We think happiness comes wrapped as a big screen TV. But the opposite is true.
Happiness doesn’t live in the mirror.
He turned his back on self-reflection and looked outward to fulfill the needs of others. He obtained a doctorate, but there was no “Call me Dr. McKeague” from him. He instructed his children not to make him “look like a big shot” at the funeral. He wanted the rewards of his actions to fall on those who needed the help, not on himself. It was okay with him that we all looked toward his causes, helping them, supporting them, only glancing back after he was gone to realize that he had been the foundation, the catalyst for so much good work.
Alex lived naturally to a standard that most of the rest of us find unnaturally difficult to achieve. It’s hard to get past fear and societal pressures.
What will people think? Obey the rules. Don’t rock the boat.
I’ll try. Because at Alex’s funeral I learned I want to live like Alex, so that when I die they will need lots of extra chairs.
This is a re-post from 2010. All these years later, I’m still trying . . .
“A bayberry candle burned to the socket puts luck in the home, food in the larder and gold in the pocket.”
My mother-in-law burned a bayberry taper candle down to the socket every Christmas Day, to bring the family luck for the coming year.
We adopted the tradition in our house even though I learned that my mother-in-law’s version of the tradition differed from the original. According to online sources, the candles were lit on New Year’s Eve and the flame had to continue burning into New Year’s Day to carry the luck forward.
I thought about changing our tradition to align with the legend, but then dismissed the idea. Traditions are rituals, and rituals should warm the soul, revive memories of loved ones and centre us in what is really important.
If I were to light a bayberry candle on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Day, it would feel all wrong.
So I’ll keep on lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas morning. When I do, it will warm my soul, it will remind me of my mother-in-law, and it will centre me in what is really important.
And that, I suspect, will bring me more luck than anything.
During one Christmas Eve dinner with his wife, well-known author Paulo Coelho grumbled about something that was not perfect in his life. His thoughtful wife pointed out the beautifully illuminated Christmas tree nearby.
There was one burnt bulb among the brilliantly shining ones.
“It seems to me that instead of thinking of this year as dozens of enlightened blessings, you chose to look at the one light that did not glow,” she said.
What is the ratio of enlightened blessings to burnt bulbs in your life?
This month, whether you enjoy Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the solstice, Festivus, or any other celebration, may you bask in the glow of so many enlightened blessings that you don’t notice any dark spots.