Before a word was even spoken—before even the cheers and applause subsided—he hummed a note, beckoning us to follow.
A chorus of hums immediately began resonating in unison from all across the darkened theater, uniting a diverse crowd with oneness and harmony.
Then he started singing, and without any further instruction, everyone (everyone!) followed his lead, joining in to sing a rendition of “My Country tis of Thee.”
As a child, my grandparents would often take us grandkids on weekend road trips through New England, and during those outings we would often hear this man’s voice come across the radio.
Three decades later, on a cold February night in 2017, it was a surreal experience to hear that same voice resonate through the theater, live and in person, captivating our attention and inspiring our hearts with an evening of storytelling with Garrison Keillor.
He shared important moments in his life, moments he wanted to write down because they were worth remembering—moments of fallibility shaping who he is and why he is. These intimate confessions resonated with us because they expressed our own private desires and mirrored our own intimate experiences.
In the Coen Brothers film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a character in the final scene emphasizes the profound inspiring quality of stories, stating how “...people can’t get enough of them...they connect the stories to themselves…and we all love hearing about ourselves—so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us.”
The stories Mr. Keillor shared with us that night inspired our hearts and minds because they reassured us that we are not alone, revealing a shared underlying narrative of the human experience. In his own words: “We are more alike than we think, and certainly more than we try to be.”
The timeliness of his reassuring and inspiring stories becomes poignant when we consider how the cold February air outside the theater mirrored the cold climate of a nation becoming increasingly divided during the dawning of a new era.
Perhaps, if we choose to, we can come in from the cold and, rather than fighting over the diversity of our differences, we can instead join in harmony from every mountainside to recognize our shared human narrative.
Such can be the hope for our sweet land of liberty, to increase who we include as us and decrease who we exclude as them. Perhaps.
Mr. Keillor proved to us that, by heart, we already know the words—but do we choose to join together in harmony and live by them?
As for me, I'm inspired to stand together with my fellow Earth travelers, which is why I continue to reflect on moments from my life—moments that are worth remembering; moments of fallibility that shape who I am and why I am; moments that mirror our collective desires and intimate experiences.
I share stories that reflect positivity principles with the hope you will see yourself mirrored in them and be inspired to see and understand how accessible and actionable they are. After all, we “love hearing about ourselves—so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us.”
What inspires you? And what do you do to engage in these things on a regular basis
She was only 22 years old, yet despite her young age and limited training, Judith Feist became the director of an orphanage in France.
This begs two questions: Why would they entrust someone so young and with no credentials with so much responsibility? And why would she accept this responsibility at all?
The answer to the first question is quite simple: No one else wanted the responsibility.
The orphanage housed 100 boys who were survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II. The boys didn’t trust anyone, conditioned to view authority as a threat. They were constantly caught stealing and hoarding food and would often be found fighting with each other. These boys were in rough shape and most people thought they were lost causes—and this included the previous director of the orphanage who simply had enough and stepped down because he couldn’t take it anymore.
And that’s where Judith came in, a young social worker who saw a need and cared enough to be the person to step up, to take the initiative, and do something about it.
As the comedian Lily Tomlin once said, “I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”
Despite her young age and little training, Judith had profound compassion for these boys and wanted to make a positive difference in their lives, but she also knew it was going to be a challenge, especially to earn their trust.
The first thing she did was learn everyone’s name and began learning Yiddish so she could speak their language. Before long, she started seeing smiles every time she greeted a boy by name.
Next, she instituted an open-door policy for the kitchen. As a result, stealing and hoarding food stopped overnight.
Then, she made new room assignments, rooming the boys by their hometowns rather than by their age. There were eight-year-olds rooming with sixteen-year-olds—where the older boys looked after the little ones, the little ones looked up to the older boys. Overnight, the fighting stopped.
Eventually, things improved so much that she was able to bring the boys on a field trip to see a performance of the opera The Magic Flute. It was during that trip that Judith saw in their eyes for the first time a glimmer of hope and wonder.
All of these changes were small, but they had a huge impact on the boys. Twenty years after leaving the orphanage, the Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel—who was one of Judith’s boys at the orphanage—wrote her a letter stating:
“The fact is that all the children could have chosen violence or nihilism but you succeeded to direct us toward confidence and reconciliation. You supported and encouraged us to choose a stake in the future and in community. Judith, do you realize how much you meant to our very existence?”
When we recognize a need, we can wait for somebody to care enough to step up and do something about it, or we can recognize that we are somebody and step up ourselves. We don’t need any credentials to make a difference—we only need two qualities: Be able to recognize a need and have compassion to step up, take the initiative, and do something about it. If more people did that, I wonder what would happen to this world?
How are you taking initiative to enact positive change in your world?
He scooted into the kitchen as soon as the door opened. This was quite a surprise; up until now, every other time he had come for a visit, he'd wait to step inside until I backed away from the door. This was the first time Mr. Scoots, a beautifully-orange stray cat, allowed me to come between him and the door.
The seasons were changing, and the cool Autumn air would soon turn into a frigid New England winter. I had hoped by this point Mr. Scoots would trust me enough to stay inside at night to keep warm, but his tendency to scoot away as soon as anyone came too close made this an unlikely hope.
Up until now, that is.
I was still standing right next to the door and Mr. Scoots was already far into the kitchen. I couldn’t have planned a better moment to test our trust. Nonchalantly, I closed the door and turned to the cupboard to get Mr. Scoots some food—but I had to abandon the test mission immediately. Mr. Scoots was freaking out!
He ran to the door, willing it to open, but instead somehow managed to climb up it while bellowing deep, fearful meows. He wanted out! I tried to console him with a soothing voice, but he was triggered and no amount of soothing could calm him down.
I moved back to the door to open it, but that was too close for Scoots, so he scooted away. With the door finally opened, Scoots ran to the door—but because I was still near the door, he scooted away again. Thinking fast, I went into the pantry to hide, and with me out of sight, Mr. Scoots finally scooted out the door.
My heart hurt. I was concerned that all the work we had done for nearly a year to build trust had been erased by this traumatizing incident. “Will he ever be able to trust me?” I wondered.
It’s often suggested to treat others as you wish to be treated, and while this is a sound suggestion, when taken literally without accounting for the spirit of its deeper meaning, we can potentially miss the meaning entirely.
Instead of treating others as you wish to be treated, perhaps it can best be reframed as treating others as they wish to be treated. In this way, we become empowered to develop mutual trust by demonstrating consistent respect for meaningful boundaries. As for me and Mr. Scoots, this means having an open door policy when he comes inside.
Despite my concerns, I’m happy to say that our relationship continues to deepen. Not long after the incident, Mr. Scoots was spending time inside my apartment and I went about my business tending to my work. After some time, I presumed he had already left, but when I went to close the door I instead found him sleeping on the couch!
My heart became light, because I knew that Mr. Scoots had developed a level of trust with me that was truly and sincerely earned—through respectful boundaries and freedom to be without condition.
I know Mr. Scoots is just a cat, but I wonder what it would be like if more of our relationships were empowered in a similar way, with an open door of respect and freedom to be just as we are without condition.
What do you do to foster trust in your relationships?
Most of the details are now forgotten, but two names have stayed with me, even after all this time.
Athena is the one who called me out, causing a rush of humiliation to crash over me.
Nick wasn’t even there, but he was the one receiving the brunt of my tacit deceit.
Just to be clear, my behavior that day was not motivated by a desire to hurt Nick. Rather, it was motivated by a desire to preserve my own reputation and good standing in the group.
The problem is, sometimes in an effort to save ourselves, we can hurt others along the way—whether intentionally or unintentionally. And in middle school, I learned that lesson the hard way.
Nick, Athena, and I (and a fourth person who I’ve long since forgotten) were working together for several days on a group project for social studies class.
I don’t remember who the fourth person was—most likely because my interaction with them hadn’t elicited an emotional connection.
And I also don’t remember what the project was about—again, most likely because it hadn’t tapped into the affective domain of experiences that can embed lasting bookmarks in our memories.
But what I do remember is that on this particular day in question, Nick was absent from class and there was a particularly important piece of paper that we needed to help us finish the project—but none of us could find it.
Someone suggested that Nick probably had it, and the other agreed—and together they started saying terrible things about Nick for leaving us high and dry.
As for me, I had no words. As a shy kid who preferred to stay invisible, I was just glad they weren’t talking about me.
But when class was nearly over that day, I discovered the real reason why we couldn't find that most important piece of paper: it was hiding behind some papers in my backpack.
At first, I was relieved to have discovered it! But the relief was short-lived, because my thoughts then turned to how my partners had spoken so poorly of Nick. I became sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to tell them I found the paper because I didn’t want them to turn their anger toward me.
So instead, I contrived a devious plan to avoid humiliation, by secretly placing the paper onto the floor under the desks. I reasoned that eventually, someone would “discover” it there, and they would assume one of us had simply dropped it—but no one would know who.
But just as I put this plan into action, Athena caught me in the act and immediately recognized the paper as the one we had been looking for.
“You’re trying to pretend it’s been there the whole time!" she scolded. "I saw you do it! You’re lying!”
I had no words. Just like I had no words in defense of Nick.
I was completely humiliated.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson—a lesson that was felt and understood immediately in the moment, and over the course of nearly three decades was eventually put into words:
We can choose to be humble, or we can wait to be humiliated.
As agents of Free Will, the choice is ours.
Which do you choose?
Think about a time in your life when a lack of humility led to humiliation. How has this experience affected your behavior? And what might you do to bring more humility into your life to empower positive relationships?
The parking garage was just a quick drive up 91 North, and even though it was late, I got into the ‘94 Buick LaSabre and cruised up the highway.
Or was it early? It was in the dark in-between void between late and early when most people would normally be sound asleep that I went for that drive fueled by negative rumination—the rumination that overwhelmed any other sound vying for my attention.
The negative cycle was only broken by the sudden appearance of blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror, emerging from the darkness. It was only then that I became aware of John Denver’s voice singing “Sweet Surrender” over the car stereo. I must have put a CD on when I got in.
🎶 “Lost and alone on some forgotten highway; traveled by many, remembered by few.” 🎶
When the Massachusetts State Trooper sauntered up to the passenger door, I rolled down the window to pass along the license and registration. After briefly perusing the credentials, he asked, “Do you have a registration that isn’t expired?”
“That’s the only one I have,” I responded, “Is it expired?”
“Yes,” he replied, “It expired last week.”
I thought about the stack of mail on my desk back at the apartment. For six weeks the pile grew bigger and bigger, but I had no interest in looking through it. “The renewal notice must be there,” I thought to myself. “The system isn’t designed for people who don’t care.”
“Would you step out of the car please,” the trooper asked—though it was more of a command than a request. But I didn’t make a fuss about it. Although perhaps I should have—that might have been one way to get to my appointment with the other side, with no need to get to the tall building.
The trooper proceeded to frisk me before taking a cursory inventory of the items in the Buick. He took special interest in the saxophone case. I don’t know exactly what he was looking for, but it was all very exciting. And I told him so.
“This is all very exciting,” I said, as he closed the sax case.
“Really? Why is that?” he responded.
“I’ve never had anything like this happen before,” I said.
Just as the trooper finished snooping around, the tow truck arrived to impound the Buick. I stood idly by, watching the trucker load the car onto the back of the truck. I thought it silly that a fully functioning vehicle had to be carried by a bigger vehicle just because a signature and stamp wasn’t delivered to the RMV. To be a part of society certainly requires a lot of red tape.
But for the prior two months, I had no energy to be a part of society. After my fiancée died, I lost the taste for life, and the everyday rituals of society seemed so empty, arid, and meaningless. There wasn’t anything wrong with me physically, but mentally and emotionally I was a wreck. All I wanted to do was make the pain go away, and in that dark void between late and early all those years ago, I decided to rid myself of the pain and the meaningless of life by jumping off a parking garage.
What stopped me from following through with this life-ending plan was the negative rumination itself—which kept me from checking my mail, preventing me from renewing the car registration, causing the State Trooper to tow the car away, which in turn literally stopped me in my tracks.
When the Buick was secured on the back of the tow truck, the trooper gave back my license and registration, recommending that I do what needed to be done to take care of the issue, then got into his cruiser and cruised away. I thought about the John Denver CD in the car:
🎶 “There’s nothing behind me and nothing that ties me to something that might have been true yesterday. Tomorrow is open and right now it seems more than enough to just be here today.” 🎶
The ensuing years were rough, challenging my assumptions, fears, and desires; and as my mental and spiritual health deteriorated, my physical health soon followed. But eventually, over time—and in a roundabout way—I did heed the trooper’s advice. I started taking care of myself—starting with what was necessary, then with what was possible, and finally I found myself doing the seemingly impossible—striking a balance between my physical, mental, and emotional health.
When disappointments and challenges stack on top of each other, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, allowing your health to deteriorate over time. Yet by taking these challenging circumstances in stride, by tending to what can be controlled and letting go of the rest, you empower yourself with the mental, emotional, and physical health needed to carry you safely from one moment to the next, even in moments of potential crisis.
It was in this way that I eventually overcame that dark night of soul, a pit of despair lasting three years. It used to be that I thought about death every day because I was excited to bring about the end. Today, I still think about death often, yet now it’s not because I want to bring about my end, but rather because there is still so much that I want to do. Today, there is a profound sense of urgency to maintain physical, mental, and emotional health to allow myself as much Dynamic Free Will as possible to ensure I have the best chance to do all that I hope to accomplish in this lifetime. Or as John Denver would say:
🎶 “There’s a spirit that guides me and a light that shines for me; my life is worth the living, I don’t need to see the end. Sweet, sweet surrender!” 🎶
What are you doing today to take care of physical, mental, and spiritual health
I'm a mirror (and so are you).