My reservoir of resilience ran dry this year. It feels like the seams holding it together came apart and I have tried to re-stitch them. Along the way, four threads of resilience, humility and hope have helped.
I found one thread in Vice President Joe Biden’s commencement address at Yale in May. Biden described how election as one of the youngest ever to serve in the U.S. Senate fueled his “raw ambition” many years ago. He was full of himself, he said, until six weeks after the election, when his wife and young daughter died in an auto accident and his two young sons clung to life. He changed his focus and commuted four hours each day between home and Washington, D.C. so he could be with his sons every morning and evening. Biden said that being present with his sons and family suddenly meant more to him than all he had striven for. He commuted for 36 years. His priorities have remained the same ever since. Ordinary relationships and people are more important than prestige, said Biden.
A second thread of resilience came from President Barack Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa C. Pickney, Pastor of the historic Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. State Senator Pickney and eight other African-Americans were massacred by a white racist in June at the end of an evening Bible study at the church. Of Pickney, the President said,
He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words, that the sweet hour of prayer actually lasts the whole week long, that to put our faith in action is . . . about our collective salvation, that to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society. . . .What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized, after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say somebody was a good man. You don’t have to be of high distinction to be a good man.
A third thread came from former President Jimmy Carter as he spoke about his diagnosis of metastatic melanoma. When asked by reporters of what he is most proud and whether he wishes he had done anything differently, Carter responded,
. . . When I was president, for which I’m very grateful—that was the high point of my life, politically speaking. But The Carter Center. . . . deal[s] with individual people in the smallest and most obscure and suffering villages and that has been far more gratifying personally. Going into the villages, learning actual needs, then meeting those needs has been one of the best things that ever happened to me.
I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them, and I would have been re-elected. But that may have interfered with the foundation of The Carter Center. And if I had to choose between four more years [as President] and The Carter Center, I think I would choose The Carter Center.
The most recent thread and impetus to write came from Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last week. Francis, from Argentina, is a Jesuit, served churches in slums, and rode public buses to work each day even after he becoming a cardinal. Unlike previous popes, he eats in the staff cafeteria with custodians and cooks, and refuses as many of the traditional vestiges of papal wealth and power possible. Experienced U.S. reporters were tongue-tied at the Pope’s simplicity and integrity when he stepped into in a Fiat hatchback upon arriving in the U.S.
Francis ate lunch with 300 homeless people in D.C. instead of with congressional leaders; and paused gave attention to special needs children and their parents. He visited poor children and their teachers in East Harlem, and prisoners in a Pennsylvania state penitentiary, held their hands and looked in their eyes as they spoke together. He helped lead a multi-faith prayer service with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus at Ground Zero in New York where, instead of Christian exceptionalism, he advocated mutual respect for all religions. The Pope’s model of humility and solidarity with the vulnerable was an antidote to the self-righteousness, bigotry, judgement, and grandiosity which usually comprise the so-called Christianity most Americans see publicly presented.
Each of these people gave me a thread of resilience, hope, and purpose. For although in powerful positions, each showed what matters most is not who one is–one’s status, wealth, or abilities–but the character of how one lives and the integrity of the love one demonstrates. One does not have to be of high distinction to be a good person. At the end of our life, what is most important is that it can be said of us, “This was a good person.” That is a purpose worth getting up for.