The 3 Most Important Life Lessons I Ever Learned
Vulnerability, according to researcher Brené Brown, is the emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty that fuels our lives. When we enter the arena of vulnerability, she says, we can either run away from it or lean into it, allowing ourselves to be seen, to be honest and to qualify courage. That’s what Brown calls resilience.
Several years ago, my arena of vulnerability was a job in New Orleans that provided services to disabled students. Into that arena stepped Josephine. She prefers Jo, though I find that name too diminutive for such a big woman—not just big as in tall and traditionally built, but big as in energy and laughter; big as in rich, earthy eyes; big as in a smile that embraces you with an even bigger heart. Although Josephine conveys a complex and expansive woman, Jo delivers simple punches.
Her thumps came into play on a daily basis. She was one of a handful of counselors who provided academic support to the most challenged students in arguably the most challenged schools in the entire country. The criteria for our program were specific—low income; first-generation, meaning neither parent had graduated from college; and disabled.
Disability is an interesting term. We considered physical diagnoses like cerebral palsy, blindness and sickle cell anemia. Most of our students, however, fell into the vast category of “learning problems.” Sadly, that term was a catchall for slow learners, behavior problems, and kids being raised by tired grandmas and aunties who counted on Supplemental Security Income to make ends meet. Alas, the greatest disability was often not a condition that hindered learning, but that these children were simply never taught.
These students and the work we did with them defined our daily arena, though it wasn’t all about vulnerability. More often than not, it was about resilience and accountability. We had to quantify and qualify hundreds of activities that were supposed to prepare these learners for post-secondary education, job training, GED or just about anything that would give them an alternative life. Thousands of kids passed through the program. A handful graduated from high school; two made it through college. Those success stories still make me proud.
We designed every kind of assessment and activity you can imagine for kids in rundown schools that had long since abdicated the right to call themselves that in neighborhoods known more for their crime rates than their residents. Lovingly frustrated, we schlepped reams of paper through noisy hallways; sat through interminable conferences with parents, teachers and guidance counselors; and arranged field trips, study-skills workshops and summer camps.
Back to Jo, the summer camp coordinator. Camp was a compulsory component of the program. To meet performance requirements set by the Department of Education (which paid our salaries), we would frantically run around for two months, verifying attendance and conducting mandatory orientations for a hundred kids to attend an academic summer camp. It was a grueling process with stringent guidelines, including a mandatory orientation.
Summer in New Orleans isn’t just hot. It’s swampy. And swelty. Temperaments swelter, too. Rather than cooling things off, almost-daily afternoon storms just make everything swampier. And sweltier. When it doesn’t rain, you wish it would, just to break the humidity. Sometimes the rain is accompanied by crashing lighting and thunder. Sometimes the rains turn into floods that block roads and strand entire populations for hours at a time—populations that include kids waiting for buses to or from summer camp.
Jo, who has a degree in recreation therapy, was a natural as camp coordinator. She incorporated ROPES-type exercises into the curriculum. These are the group-dynamic games in which people learn things about themselves by developing interpersonal relationships. Physical and mental challenges—trusting a sighted partner to guide you through an obstacle course blindfolded, or lining up by age without speaking—that build character and resolve conflict. It was fun. It was educational. It was recreation therapy. It was pure Jo.
In theory, the camp offered academic remediation and cultural enrichment. In reality, it was something to give naive scamps and potential thugs something constructive to do, get them out of their crime-infested neighborhoods and offer relief to their guardians. In many instances, their homes were headed by single grandparents, or even great-grandparents, who lived from entitlement to entitlement.
During the first year of Jo’s tenure, a very tired grandmother arrived unannounced—days after the final orientation—with a collection of children that included a 12-year-old boy for summer camp. She apologized for missing the orientation but said they had just come back from her auntie’s funeral in the country.
“I am so sorry for your loss,” Jo condoled. “But registration is closed. I’m sorry, but we can’t take your boy.”
Grandma’s face dropped. The program’s director was aghast. But Jo stood firm. Her rationale was as flawless as her sympathy was deep.
“If we accept that child, we are teaching him and all his siblings that with the right excuse, you can get away with anything.”
Pow. Right in the gut. We didn’t take him.
Jo’s lesson, however, is not at all about applying responsibility to others. That’s easy. No, the hard part is holding one’s self responsible.
I already knew how to carry my weight—and own it. But Jo’s advice crystallized the point. Rather than have excuses bite me in the ass, responsibility is the easier venue. Sometimes it’s just getting somewhere on time and not using traffic as an excuse. Sometimes it means working late to finish a report that was someone else’s obligation or preparing for a meeting that I didn’t want to attend. I even told my husband when I scraped the side of the car; I didn’t pretend it somehow just happened in an unknown parking lot. I don’t need excuses if I just do the next right thing.
Being the responsible person I had become, I went with Jo to a workshop in Memphis. There were about a hundred counselors from similar programs around the country. In an opening icebreaker, we sat in a circle and one by one, stated our names, titles and then the kicker: what we did in our real lives.
In our real lives? Mine had bottomed out, just as my stomach did that morning. My sister had just died, my husband wasn’t working and I had quit drinking. I was not going to tell this room full of strangers that my real life was a walking mess of vulnerability. My skin crawled as I heard what everyone else did in their real lives—worked on doctorates, illustrated children’s books, visited National Parks, won blue ribbons, played golf, sold handcrafted beads.
All these accomplished somebodies put me to shame. Well, no, actually I put myself to shame. I was forced to ask myself, What did I do in my real life? Steeped in misery, I mumbled something about cooking when my turn came.
Jo followed me and concluded by saying, “and in my real life, I am a friend.”
Pow. Right to the solar plexus.
She could have bragged about her husband and kids, one of whom was on his way to becoming a professional athlete. She could have boasted about the house they built and lovingly furnished. But no. She was a friend. Jo opened my life to me with those simple words.
It’s not that I wasn’t a friend. I was. I am. I have long believed that friends define the boundaries of the soul, but I never saw them as defining my real life.
“Don’t ever say ‘only a friend’!” I had admonished my sister’s best friend shortly before she died. Carol thought her grief was less than mine. To this day, decades later, I know without a doubt that the edges of her soul hanker still for that unique definition. Friends grieve like family cannot. They hold secrets that families confound.
It’s true, we can—and do—choose our friends. It’s also true that sometimes we take friendship as a given. It’s like knowing the sun rises and sets gloriously every day, but not stopping to appreciate it until clouds set in. Then we realize how much we miss the glow.
Recently, a colleague shared with me that a close friend of hers had just died. She was heartbroken. I pointed to a picture of Jo and me on my file cabinet.
“That woman changed my life,” I said, then shared with her Jo’s lesson on friendship.
My colleague took me by the hands.
“I just lost an old friend,” Vi confided, “but I just gained a new one.”
Being the friend that she is, Jo sends birthday cards—of course. One year, she added a note saying she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and she asked for my support. There is nothing you can say when someone shares this news. But I called her, because that’s what friends do. I wanted her to know that she was in my thoughts and prayers. Her response was a pivot.
“I didn’t ask for this,” she said quite matter-of-factly. “And I don’t want it. But I know I am going to meet some interesting people, and I know I am going to learn something about myself.”
Pow. Smack dab, right in the middle of my forehead. My third eye opened.
Even if you don’t believe in such an intense frame of reference, these words knocked me into spirituality.
When five years had passed, Jo happily shared the news that she was cancer-free. I told her she had changed my life with her courage.
“Well, she replied, “I did meet a lot of interesting people. And I did learn a lot about myself. And some of it I didn’t like!”
Just like that.
A few years later, Katrina wiped out New Orleans. There is still much publicity about the Ninth Ward, but no one ever talks about my neighborhood, Lakeview, or hers, New Orleans East. New Orleans East is a patchwork of middle-class neighborhoods—some upper middle, some lower middle, but mostly middle middle. And mostly black. Not poor black like the Ninth Ward, but proud black—professionals, small business owners, families, teachers, firefighters.
Following Katrina, Jo and her husband lived in a FEMA trailer while they rebuilt. Her office in New Orleans temporarily relocated to Baton Rouge, where she commuted a few days a week. My husband and I had moved to Baton Rouge, from where I commuted to New Orleans a few days a week. We joked about waving to each other on that 80-mile stretch of I-10. She admitted at one point, though, that reconstruction and relocation were taking its toll.
“Well,” I responded, “a wise woman once told me, ‘I didn’t ask for this, I don’t want to deal with it, but I know I am going to meet some interesting people, and I know I am going to learn something about myself.’ ”
Without skipping a beat, she replied, “I think I’ve met enough people and learned enough about myself for the time being.”
Amen, Jo. Sometimes we need a sabbatical.
Like Jo, I would never wish a natural disaster on anyone. I didn’t ask for Katrina, and I didn’t want to deal with it. But it happened, and because of it, I took on unfathomable responsibilities in a whole new career, met wonderfully diverse friends and learned things about myself that I would never have otherwise. And yes, some of it I didn’t like.
But change is good. It forces us to stretch our limits beyond what we thought we could tolerate. When it comes to facing change, the general population falls along a steep bell curve. A rare few anchor the ends—the rest clump in the middle. Jo is one of those anchors. She makes it look easy because it’s who she is. So I now embrace change. It has opened worlds to me that I never knew existed.
Jo recently told me that her arena of cancer returned. I know it will teach her something and she will teach me. Because Jo faces her vulnerabilities. Because she doesn’t let them chase her away. Because she delivers simple punches.
When I’m having a rough day at work, I often look at the picture on my file cabinet. I know Jo will tell me one of three things:
- Responsibility trumps excuses every time.
- My worth as a person is measured by my worthiness as a friend.
- And change—which is not often easy and not often kind—is always good.