My mother loves the ocean. She is more herself when it is nearby. She believes that it sees and knows, that it moves and feels. It inspires her wonder and fear. She revels in the uncertainty that it could become angry at any moment and take lives at its will. To my mother, the ocean is God.
“Don’t you ever take it for granted, Krissy,” she would say to me. “When you look at that ocean, remember there’s always something bigger than you. Respect her.”
Summer had just ended, and the quaint coastal town had begun to fold up. We found a small cottage—really a motel room with a kitchenette. We never said it was our home; to us, it was just “Number Six.” My mother paid the first month’s rent, enrolled me in kindergarten a block away, and bought us a sack of potatoes and some ketchup. And we began our new life.
“If I were a thief, I would go over there and steal those rotten cabbages for you. But I am not a thief.”
I don’t remember being excited about school. It seemed so frivolous, and I thought I should be getting a job. “I could get a paper route,” I told my mother one night as we walked back to Number Six from the pay phone, where she’d called my dad, begging him to send the $75 child support check. He promised he’d send it as soon as possible, but I knew the potatoes were running low.
My mother looked for work, but the car we’d used to get to the town had broken down, and there were only two or three restaurants within walking distance of Number Six. She didn’t want to get a job in a bar because she was trying earnestly to stop drinking.
Maybe two weeks passed and still no child support check—no money at all. I sat at the kitchen table one night, watching Walter Cronkite deliver the evening news with his objectivity and journalistic integrity. He said something like, “Here is the news at this suppertime.” I remember this because I was so surprised by it. His words were otherwise so dry, so metered, but his mention of it being dinnertime was almost friendly. I wondered if he could see us; how did he know it was time to eat?
My mother was staring out the window with her back to me. I said to her, “Well? He’s right. It is dinnertime. Right, Mom?” I thought I was being clever in catching Cronkite’s sincerity.
She let out a sigh. Without turning around she said, “Do you see that out there? Those people have let their garden grow over. The cabbages have gone to seed now. They’d never know or care if I just snuck over and took one for you.”
The quivering in her voice scared me. She turned to me and wiped her eyes. With a look so cool I thought she might have been mad at me, she said, “If I were a thief, I would go over there and steal those rotten cabbages for you. But I am not a thief.”
Without another word, she passed me and walked out the front door of Number Six. She left it open, and I followed her. She walked down five cottages and knocked on the door to Number One—a larger cottage, where an old man and woman lived. Even though they were our neighbors, we had no idea who they were. The old lady opened the door, and I wove around my mother so I could see inside.
“This is my daughter, Kristine,” my mother stated. “We have no food. She’s had nothing to eat but potatoes for a month, and now we don’t even have any of those left. I don’t care about myself, but could you please give her something to eat?”
The old woman was short and fat with dark skin and black hair twisting around her head. Her name was Anita Vanover. Her husband was a tall white man who was just called Van. I could see into their cottage; the table was set, and Anita and Van were obviously just sitting down to eat. The smells coming from inside made me drool.
I don’t remember Anita saying anything to my mother or even asking her husband first if she could give us something, but I remember her packing up her table: the pot roast, the carrots, the gravy, the potatoes. She handed it all to my mother.
It turned out that the couple had friends who owned one of the restaurants where my mom had tried to get a job. Anita talked to them, and they hired her. Anita and Van became my caretakers in the evening.
They saved my mother and me.
At that moment, though, I don’t think Anita and Van thought they were saving lives or forever changing the path of a child. I think they thought they were doing what they were supposed to do when a woman with a little girl comes to the door and says she needs to eat. What more needs to be said or done? They probably figured that it’s just food.
When you give the best you have to someone in need, it translates into something much deeper to the receiver. It means that they are worthy.
Anita gave so effortlessly and so quickly that I doubt she ever thought about it again. But that one moment taught me a lesson about giving that I have never forgotten. There came a day 30 years later, when I passed that lesson on to my own children.
My daughter’s school had a food drive, and she was excited to collect food for it. Even at 10 years old, she had a strong sense of community. She wanted to be either a police officer so she could help people or an astronaut so she could protect the planet from wayward asteroids. We had to keep her from watching the news because it moved her to the point of tears. Her heart would break for the human condition.
She went to our pantry and started bagging up the canned and dry goods. All the while, she talked. “Oh, I’ll put in the green beans, I don’t like those… I’ll save the Kraft macaroni and cheese. We can give them some no-name brand.” And I realized that my daughter—as generous and good as she already was—knew nothing about giving. I felt like I had taught her nothing.
She didn’t know about Anita and Van. She didn’t know about Number Six. She didn’t know that she could see the face of a hungry child if she looked long enough at her own mother.
So I told her. I told her that my kindergarten teacher thought I was “retarded” because I was so hungry that I didn’t perform well in school and was always slower than the rest of the class. I told her that Anita could have just gone to her cupboard and made me a peanut butter sandwich, and my mother and I would have been so grateful. But she didn’t. She gave the best she had.
The biggest problem with poverty is the shame that comes with it. When you give the best you have to someone in need, it translates into something much deeper to the receiver. It means they are worthy.
If it’s not good enough for you, it’s not good enough for those in need either. Giving the best you have does more than feed an empty belly—it feeds the soul.
Donate to your local food bank today, and give them the best you can.
10 Simple Rules for the Best Life Ever
Your roadmap to a more meaningful life
When he first visited the asylum for the mentally disabled, Jean Vanier was overwhelmed by the filth and overcrowding. It was inhuman.
The year was 1964 and Vanier, a French-Canadian philosopher/theologian who had served in the Navy, was still figuring out his path in life.
One of the residents in the asylum asked Vanier if he would be his friend. What happened next defined Vanier’s life work, and set an example for the rest of us who want more meaning in our lives.
Vanier invited the resident and another disabled man to live with him in a modest house in Trosly-Breuil, France. It was here that Vanier fed and washed the disabled men. Others would come, and Vanier named his care home “L’Arche” after Noah’s Ark.
“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” -Jean Vanier
Vanier’s model of care grew into L’Arche International, serving in thirty-eight countries and five continents, with over 10,000 members (with and without disabilities).
The light that is shining in them
When I was a police chief in California, our agency used to participate in the annual Special Olympics summer games. My lieutenant and I, in our formal uniforms, would drive an hour to the host city.
We attended planning meetings and a luncheon, but the best part was interacting with the athletes before the games. We’d play catch or kick a soccer ball around. It was a lot of fun. The enthusiasm, affection, and charm of the athletes were infectious.
There were no pretensions, mind games or duplicity. The athletes were the embodiment of love and authenticity. All they wanted was for us to treat them like everybody else.
“We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.” -Jean Vanier, From Brokenness To Community
The athletes didn’t want any special accommodations. They simply wanted to compete, have fun, laugh, and share their joy for life with us. I learned a lot from them about being in the moment, and that happiness can be found in everyday living.
As Jean Vanier once told a Wall Street Journal writer:
“The great thing about people with intellectual disabilities is that they’re not people who discuss philosophy. What they want is fun and laughter, to do things together and fool around, and laughter is the heart of community.”
Vanier went on to state:
“What I’m trying to live and trying to say is that people with disabilities are important — in themselves but also they have a message to give to humanity.”
My sister, who is a kind-hearted soul, used to work with intellectually and developmentally disabled children. I remember visiting her once at work and seeing the affectionate way the children interacted with her.
It was moving. Even now, it makes me wish that everyone could possess the same authenticity, affection, and joy for everyday life that these young, intellectually disabled children display.
Presence to others
As we age, we lose a great deal of our childhood innocence. Our curiosity and imaginations succumb to adolescence, hormones and the complexities of adulthood.
We become concerned about our appearance, popularity, and success. We compete in the workplace and learn that communication involves what we say versus what we really mean. We worry about things like status and social rank.
We try to create a safe little world for ourselves, devoid of risk and averse to vulnerability. Only, over time, we’re still not happy.
“He who clutches desperately to security, to everyday habits, work, organization, friends, family, no longer lives. More than security, life needs adventure, risk, dynamic activity, self-giving, presence to others.” — Jean Vanier, Tears of Silence
In order to achieve the best life ever, we need to get out of our own way. Let go of our petty insecurities, accept our strengths and weaknesses, and rediscover the joy found in being present and helping others.
10 simple rules for the best life ever
Thankfully, Jean Vanier left us a roadmap for how to live a better life. How to capture some of the joy that he experienced every day caring for his friends at L’Arche. They are ten simple rules. Follow them to help you live the best life ever.
- Accept the reality of your body. As Vanier noted, we are born in weakness and die in weakness. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve your body and health, but learn to accept yourself as you are. There are so many more important things to focus on, like being present and helping others, which enrich us far beyond our physical appearance.
- Talk about your emotions and difficulties. We tend to have difficulty expressing our emotions, yet they drive so much of what we do. Worse, we compensate with drugs and alcohol to mask our feelings of not being successful. Talking about how we feel, honestly, can free us.
- Don’t be afraid of not being successful. We erroneously equate being loved with being successful, but as Vanier said, “You are beautiful as you are.” The true measure of a person is not defined by the size of his/her bank account. It’s defined by their emotional bank account. How kind they are. How they treat others. We might envy Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth, but admire people like Mother Teresa more.
4. In a relationship, take the time to ask: “How are you?” You’re married to your spouse, not success. Yes, work is important to provide for our families. But being there for our families is even more important. Take the time to check in. Ask how your spouse and kids are doing. They’ll remember your thoughtfulness and love much more than your career success.
5. Stop looking at your phone. Be present! The digital age has brought us instant communication, but are we really talking to one another?
6. Ask people: “What is your story?” Everyone has a story if you’re willing to listen. Stop trying to change other people and truly meet them. Just because they don’t share your views doesn’t mean they don’t have their own stories, experiences, and wisdom. Learn their story, and stop judging.
7. Be aware of your own story. You are just as precious as every other human being. Appreciate your own uniqueness and talents.
8. Stop prejudice: meet people. Jean Vanier spoke of the “tyranny of culture.” My group. My party. My culture. Yes, be proud of who you are and your culture, but not at the expense of others. Become a member of humanity. It just might transform you.
9. Listen to your deepest desire and follow it. Unlike animals, humans beings have moral and spiritual needs. Beyond eating, procreating and existing, we search for the infinite. The reason why we are here. All of us have an inner voice that guides us. Our hearts often tell us when we are off course. Learn to trust your heart.
10. Remember that you will die one day. Jean Vanier noted that “We’re all here, but we are just local people. Passengers on a journey. We get on and off the train and the world will continue.” Facing our mortality can help guide our actions today. It can reshape the kind of person we want to be.
Your moral purpose
The wisdom of aging is that many of the things we thought were so important, like our looks, wealth or status, really aren’t important. What matters more is our character. How we treat others.
There is much more to the world than money, competition, and material pleasures. While there’s nothing wrong with having ambition and becoming successful, the trick is to never lose sight of your moral purpose.
The minute you trade your kindness and humanity to make a buck or get ahead in life, you really end up shortchanging yourself. In the twilight of your life, the sweetness of ill-begotten success succumbs to a kind of bitterness.
Jean Vanier passed away recently in his 90th year. He was truly a saint on earth. Thankfully, he left much wisdom for us to learn from. In a 2015 interview he shared the following:
“Try and find somebody who is lonely. And when you go to see them, they will see you as the messiah. Go and visit a little old lady who has no friends or family. Bring her flowers. People say, ‘But that’s nothing.’ It is nothing — but it’s also everything.”
(Originally published at JohnPWeiss.com)
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes, and write about life. Thanks for reading!
If You Don’t Know What You Want, This Is For You
You’re in the middle of your journey. Whatever that may be; a career, school, parenthood, travel, business, a new goal, a new relationship. You’re in the midst of dozens of journeys it seems, yet you’re unsure about something. You’ve hit a dead end, you’re in a pit of uncertainty, hell you don’t even think that this is the thing. The big thing. The thing you want.
A lot of the time you feel like you’re just floating, trying to make sense of it all. It seems that you haven’t even begun your journey.
“I don’t know what I want to do.”
“I don’t know what I want for a career.”
“I don’t know if I want this person.”
“I don’t know what I want.” Period.
When you have an endless sea of decisions, a few things happen. You feel anxious, directionless, and feel an overwhelming sense of agitation and restlessness. Why? Because you know there is so much to do, so many possibilities yet you do nothing or very little. But why?
Let’s be clear on this logic.
You try to optimise a decision so deeply,
You try to think about every possible outcome,
You spend weeks, months, years thinking about the right choice,
Only to not make a decision and postpone your journey that little bit longer,
Because heavens forbid it turns out to be the wrong decision.
You’ve heard it time and time again that it’s ok to fail yet you don’t seem to put it in action. It’s because you don’t know what you want right?
Wrong, it’s because you want a lot of things, and you don’t like choosing.
Time spent doing one thing is taking away from potential time doing another thing that you might like better, right? You just want the best for you. I get it. We only have one life, we want to optimise this life, but let me rip off that band-aid. This is flawed logic and will only make you miserable after 5, 10, 20 years of waiting or deciding.
If you’re not busy doing, you’ll never figure it out.
Don’t treat your life like a formula you have to spend 10 years writing, only to maybe have the next finite amount of time slightly better off.
This is misguided. Life is meant to be an experience. Not something to be optimised by thinking 24/7 while on autopilot for the next 10 years. You’ll figure out what you want by trying different things, by simple problem solving, by the process of elimination — not a formula.
The best thing about this is that you’ll look back on those decision you actually made, and realise that they were what made the adventure possible, they made you feel fulfilled, overjoyed, maybe uncomfortable or even sad at times… but that’s what a journey is meant to be.
But I realise it’s hard to start. It’s hard to change the routine and it’s hard to break free. No amount of motivation will help unless there’s something practical to do. So here is a place to start.
If you were paying attention, you may have realised that all the self doubt and uncertainty I speak of can be traced back to some subtle ways of thinking about things. One of which consists of self talk that starts something like “I don’t know..” This, I’ve found is a horrible focal point, one that I like to overwrite when I can. Here’s how.
Get out a pen and paper, start a new document, begin writing.
What I know for certain.
Don’t focus on what you don’t know. Focus on what you do know.
This doesn’t mean not to go learn new things, this doesn’t mean to stick to the known not taking any risk. This means focus on what you know for certain about your goals, aspirations, and interests.
What I know for certain.
- I know for certain that I want to travel to many different countries
- I know for certain that I want to start a a business
- I know for certain that I don’t see a future with my partner
- I know for certain x, y or z
It could be anything. And it more often than not, will be broad.
This may seem simple, but you’ve in effect cut out all the self made barriers to your decision and simplified it. You’ve turned questions like, “I don’t know which country to go to”, “I don’t know how long I should stay there”, “I don’t know when to go or who to go with” etc. to a certainty. You’ve taken them and made them a known. Not by answering the question, but by changing the context.
I know for certain that I want to travel.
Everything else is almost negligible now. It doesn’t matter if you go to Germany or Spain. You will be following that direction that you’ve outlined for yourself. And like we mentioned before, this is all about trying things and not analysing yourself into inaction. The key is to ask yourself if the action you’re taking is aligned with what you know for certain.
This works for everything.
Going ahead and starting a business regardless of whether you fail or not, will still put you on the right path as long as starting a business is something you know you want to do. You’ll realise really quickly if it’s the right type of business, leave that realisation for later. Because by then you will know for certain whether or not it’s right for you. If you don’t start, you never will.
Focus on what you know for certain, and you’ll be inadvertently writing a story on how you eventually figured out what you wanted. An amazing story to tell at that, twists and turns, great times and times of trial. One dragon short of a real world fantasy.
Thanks for making it to the end :)
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