Not Striving for Significance: A Mother’s Day Tribute

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When I look in the mirror, I see my Mom. Not because I’m having a vision of my dearly departed mother but because I look so much like her. I have so many physical traits like her side of the family that I’ve had people look at me and say, “You must be Eleanor’s son.” Yes, I must.

When I look down at my hands, working on some detailed project, I see my Mom’s hands. They tremble just like hers did. She became quite self-conscious of this as she got older. Likewise, I am becoming more self-conscious of my shaky hands. People think I’m nervous about something when they notice it. The only thing I’m nervous about, however, is that you’ll notice it make a comment like that. At those times I feel my Mom’s frustration.

When I consider the follicle challenges I have on my head yet see the copious amount of hair that happily grows everywhere else on my body, I think of my Mom; not because she was bald and hairy but because her brothers were bald and hairy. As I understand it, I got that genetic quirk through her side of the family. The scant hair gracing my head is quite grey now, too. Also a reason to think of Mom. She got grey very early on in life. In fact, as the baby of the family, the youngest of six kids, I have no memory of my Mom with anything but grey hair. My siblings like to say it was because of the youngest child that she went grey so young. Sorry, Mom.

When I hear someone make a joke about their “quasi-Alzheimer’s” I think of my Mom. I have said before that she lost her battle with Alzheimer’s disease but I really don’t like that phrase anymore. She had as much chance of “battling” that disease as the young Somalian pirates had of taking on the U.S. Navy at the end of the “Captain Phillips” movie. It was not a fair fight and the end was inevitable. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about ending my days in the fading confusion that comes with that horrible disease. It was difficult not to feel cheated by not having your Mom fully there for the last few years of her life. Yet even in the throes of Alzheimer’s, there were aspects of who she uniquely was that could not be extinguished. She still loved to laugh. She still brightened up when little children came around. She still remained deeply concerned about caring for people, being hospitable, having enough food for everyone.

My Mom was a compassionate and gracious person. She came from a quiet, kind-hearted family, humble to a fault. I have very few memories of Mom talking much about herself. She would elaborate on some things if you asked her but seemed genuinely uninterested in being the center of any conversation. Only very late in her life did I discover she had dreams of being a nurse when she was young. Her parents discouraged this notion, especially when it became clear she had the opportunity to marry a charismatic young man who was destined to become a pastor. To them this was by far the highest status she could achieve, being wife to someone of prominence and position. I never sensed that my Mom resented this or resented the role she played as wife and mother.

She never did much striving for significance. It didn’t seem to be in her DNA. But a funny thing happened: By not striving for significance but instead being faithful and committed to her life as it unfolded before her, she achieved a significance so far beyond the reach of so many who have given all for success, money, fame. By being the gentle person she was, by living out her values and beliefs in simple, day-by-day ways, she created a legacy that has had long lasting ripple effects.

When her kids all get together these days we laugh and sing so loudly that the mother responsible for all of that noise must’ve done something right. Sure, most of the noise comes from our Dad’s genes but the spirit of it all, the sheer joy of being joyful, comes directly from our Mom. Laughter, so strong it makes you cry – that’s my Mom. But more than that, by being who she truly was and living that out for us to see and emulate, she set our lives on a course of compassion and grace. Each of her children embrace a very practical and very human way of being like Jesus. This is no accident.

I realize now that the earthy spirituality I hold so dear – an internal value so important to me that it can’t be excised from my soul – I owe to my Mom. She lived that way absolutely unselfconsciously. She didn’t attend a seminar, read a book, hear a message and then decide to strive for being real, being joyful, being compassionate, being gracious, being loving – She simply lived the way God led her to live. And in the wake of that life there are children, grand-children and great-grand-children who also strive to live the same way. She unleashed on the world a small army of little Jesus’s cast in her mold. Was this her master plan all along? Unlikely. Mom was just being Mom and letting God work out his master plan.

All this has been very important for me to consider on this Mother’s Day. I have spent too much time fretting over my own significance. We all want our lives to matter, to leave something behind, to have a legacy. We strive and we strive for things that ultimately will make us look good, will make us come out as special, unique, gifted, significant. My Mom left behind a legacy that the world would deem insignificant. She didn’t write any books, make tons of cash, find a cure for some dreadful disease, star in movies, hit lots of home runs, grace the cover of magazines or serve in some political office. History will not remember my Mom’s name. But the effect of that one quiet life will resonate on and on beyond anything that the so-called Significant People could ever muster.

So in honor of my Mom, I want to renounce a striving for significance in favor of a goal to live the life God has given me, fully and abundantly, until he calls me home. I don’t expect to be remembered to history, either. But it is my prayer that I can continue the ripple effect of grace and compassion for many more generations to come.



Our Capacity for Compassion

compassion-2I’ve heard it said  before that we only use a small percentage of our brain’s potential. It’s funny that we don’t talk the same way about our heart’s potential. By “heart” I don’t mean that organ that chugs away in the chest; I mean our potential for compassion, for empathy, for open-ness to others and to the “thrust of grace” (to borrow from a Bruce Cockburn lyric). People challenge their bodies through exercise; they challenge their brains through study, craft and Luminosity; they challenge themselves to learn new things and experience new things, to grow and add more “tools” to their own toolboxes. In many ways, being human is about that momentum forward. When we stagnate we feel it. Not always consciously but we sense something is wrong. A lot of our great art and great intellectual advances can probably be traced back to that desire to keep moving, to keep learning, to keep experiencing, to keep tapping into the great reserve of creativity and potential we carry with us through our brief years of life.

Certainly, the capacity for human beings to do great things seems to have no boundaries. But I find more and more in an age of warp-speed technological advances and unprecedented prosperity in the western world, we are forgetting to tap into the power we have for Good – grace and mercy and forgiveness and kindness; we have barely scraped the surface of our capacity for compassion.

The irony, of course, is that we are more connected now than ever before. When I traveled to Spain as a young man in 1987, connecting with my parents back in the States was a major challenge. I may have spoken on the phone with them about three or four times in my four months overseas. We communicated through letters which would take a couple of weeks, at best, to arrive. Now, if a young person is separated from their mom and dad by thousands of miles and an ocean or two, Skype puts them face-to-face in seconds. We can send instant messages practically anywhere in the world. The distance that keeps people apart shrinks when there are so many ways to connect, to stay in touch, to communicate information with such mind-boggling speed to those of us who grew up in the pre-internet world. And yet I sense in the shrinking of distances in this way a corollary: a shrinking in the compassion quotient in our lives; a decreasing ability to expand our hearts to embrace people around us.

Currently I am one of the many drones who ride the buses to work in Ottawa. I have been struck by the  masses of mostly glum humanity that cram onto those grossly utilitarian vehicles and lurch around from stop to stop, trying their best not to make eye contact, heads bowed down with a focus on screens, thumbs being the only thing moving as they stay connected with someone, anyone, who isn’t sitting or standing next to them on the morning commute. Earphones and I-Pods insure the ability to interact with others is kept to  minimum. However, even a near-Luddite like myself, who must seem like an anachronism when I actually pull out a real book to read on the bus, has bought into the Near-Death March that is the joyless journey to work and school in the early hours of each day. It is far easier to keep to oneself, to exist in your own personal bubble, than to break a barrier between yourself and a stranger. I find something keeps me back, more than just a shyness or some social anxiety.

It is said that we can exercise our brains, make them stronger and more pliable, and increase our ability to tap into all that untapped grey matter. Could it be that to tap into all our untapped capacity for compassion we also need to exercise loving kindness more often? Maybe in our society today we’ve just become flabby when it comes to caring for others. We don’t put in the daily reps needed to strengthen our hearts and a sort of compassion atrophy is the result.

For myself, to grow stronger in compassion means being intentional about pulling myself away from a focus on myself. Occasionally, I’ll find myself on that dismal bus ride on a weekday morning, considering the people around me. What are their stories? Have they fallen in love? How many times have their hearts been broken? I don’t know them, likely never will know them, yet there are dozens of people who do and cherish them as a dear friend, spouse, child, neighbor, parent. Occasionally, I’ll find myself saying a silent prayer for someone. Bless them today. Be with that mom with a couple of small kids in tow. Make that young person’s dreams a reality. Give them a great day. Occasionally, I’ll find myself smiling, appreciating human moments, individual quirkiness, the wondrous patchwork quilt that is People.

It is times like those when I feel my capacity for compassion, when I sense the deep well I have to draw from. It is times like those when I truly realize that, yes, we are all in this together and it is so great to be alive right now, right here. I guess I have moments when, like the Grinch, my heart grows three sizes in a day.

Our capacity for compassion is great and greatly untapped. But when you hop into someone else’s skin and walk around in it for awhile, you get an overwhelming sense of how we are created to love one another. It is quite a gift to be able to feel this way, when you think about it. We’ve been given so much and we have so much to give to others and our world.  Our time here is too short to not exercise the ability to care.

In the end, when we are dead and gone, quite likely we’ll want people to remember us not for the breadth of our intellect or for our impressive muscle tone, but for our inexhaustible ability to embrace the world around us. I’ll try to keep that in mind on tomorrow’s commute.