Defining how we show up

Last week I received a picture in the mail, sent by a cousin. It was of Mom thirty years ago, vibrant in life at an age just two years younger than I am now. She was beautiful, strong – and I could tell – had an agenda ahead of her. I realized as I held the picture, how much I do look like her, a similarity I don’t see often, although others might. As I continued to peer at the image, I could not help but think of the her of then and the her of now. Joyous then, in times she only vaguely remembers, now. And, though I hate to admit it, for a moment, I was filled with sadness. To realize not just her losses, but perhaps selfishly, all of this in respect to where I sit now: vibrant, strong and capable, and yet noticing how quickly some weeks fly by. More aware than ever of the loved ones who no longer have what they once had, or are no longer with us. Life’s beautiful and often sad cycles – the journey we are all on. This journey that most days I take in stride, accepting the reminder to be in the now. 

Earlier this week during a call, a colleague of mine and I transgressed for our final telephone moments to talk about bigger things than the project on our plate: life. He is older, and although he might argue as not also being wiser, I sense he’s thought a bit more about mortality than I. (I might be wrong though, because I did, after all, get myself to sleep as a kid by promising myself there would be an alternative to death by the time I was old.) As we talked about how we go about choosing how to fill those minutes we have left, Jim asked if I’d ever taken a strength finder survey, to which I replied no. The wise guy that he is recommended I might find it useful. 

And that’s what I did, admittedly selecting a freebie online rather than the $49 version. Perhaps most people of my age have already completed an evaluation like this. But different, now, than if I’d completed it twenty, ten or even five years ago – perhaps then to figure out how I might be more successful, productive, or better at my work – my reason to learn today is simple. Not to try to improve those places where I have weaknesses (although my employer or spouse may like that), but to figure out what I do well, recognizing that these strengths I’ve developed over my lifetime just happen to be the same things that bring me joy, a sense of purpose. These are the things I want to foster in whatever time I have left. 

After taking the fifteen or so minutes to rate myself, question after question, my top five strengths were disclosed. I could seek more evidence, repeat the test, ask my friends if they agree and so forth – but no, I was pretty sold upon its conclusion. No surprises found, and I suspect my friends – at least those who know me well – would agree. Whether #1 is actually #2 or #3, the outcome means the same to me. For here’s the thing – as I look at whatever days I have ahead of me, my choices for what I do are made easier by this confirmation of, simply, what my strengths are.

All this takes me back to a specific conversation in 2002. While traveling home one morning from Mt. Hood, our family car was totaled in a head on, ice-related incident, as we traveled down Timberline Road. Our then young daughters and I were transported by ambulance to Portland-area medical centers. In the years since, our bodies and spirits have mostly healed, harboring a forever recognition of our good fortune. The conversation took place my second day in Emmanuel Hospital’s ICU, me still on a backboard and loaded with morphine. My friend, Reverend Victoria, from Unity World Healing Center, dropped by to see me, the kids now recovering at home. She shared a blessing, peered past my bruised face and straight into my blackened eyes: with a question. Why am I still here? And how might I use this time, this chance, to discover my purpose or gifts? I remember at the time, morphine and all, being touched but also concerned that I didn’t know what that might be. And yet, the trauma itself shaped me, as do all those things that make up our life. So many gifts our family was given as we healed. For the first time, we were recipients of a “food train,” and so many caring acts. We all need to be recipients of love like this, so that we understand the possibilities of giving back.

Through the years Victoria’s simple statement has come back to me, and it’s meaning and possible answers grow each year. And yes, some days, it gets hidden when I get stressed or too busy with things that sometimes really don’t even matter. But now it’s there, front and center. And these strengths shout out boldly from my screen, to help guide me in this moment and into the next.

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