Thursday, 8 August 2013

A father's National Day message to his son.

On national day, our prime minister will be giving his usual speech. You can expect a lot of anecdotal accounts of how well and resilient we as a nation have been during this uncertain economic climate. You can also expect his characteristic wit and down-to-earth delivery to endear the listeners to his message. 

Likewise, I wonder, being the head of my family, whether I have a like-minded message for my son (who is only 11). Of course, my message would be tailored to provide him with general principles that are readily available when he needs them.  They would be more like guideposts to point him in the right direction. One author in fact calls it the middle axioms.

So, without the media-hype, my "national day message" to my son would go something like this.

Dear son, when you are old enough to read this, I would like to start you off in life with this question: What kind of person do you want to be? This requires deep personal soul searching because an unexamined life is not worth living. You see, in order to know what kind of person you want to be, you will need to know the purpose of your life. Everyone must find his own purpose in life. And you are no exception. So, give it some thought, my son, because when you start your life right, you will generally end well. 

Of course, your views of life will change as you mature, as you transit from being a student to a young adult, as you embark upon your career and take that all important step to marry, and as you start a family and manage all the challenges that life as a father, husband, and citizen will bring. But in all these changes, I expect that your core purpose will remain unchanged since you are created by God and anointed for good works. 

Now, to help you get started on your path to self-discovery, let me introduce you to some people who had led a purpose-driven life.  They are a nurse, a civil rights leader and a resilient couple. You can say that they knew their purpose intimately (even without consciously articulating them) and they lived out their ordinary life with extraordinary courage. I am sure their life will teach you some valuable lessons about living yours. More importantly, I trust that they will inspire you to move forward with your life.

The first of them is a lady who died for what she believed in. And what was her belief? She believed in helping and saving people even in the worst of times. She was trained as a nurse during the First World War and ran a hospital as a matron with a cadre of nurses under her supervision. 

Her name is Edith Cavell. She may not be as well known as our modern day superstars like Lady gaga or David Beckham. But believe you me, Edith lived her life with uncompromising principles. And for her passion and devotion, her contribution will forever live in the memory of anyone who has read about her life.

As a nurse, Edith's calling was not only to help the sick and afflicted. But during the war, when the German army entered and occupied Brussels, where she worked, her mission took an unexpected turn. She converted her hospital into a refuge for fugitive soldiers.

The former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, has this to say about Edith’s life in his book Courage, "Edith Cavell's entire life was one of action over inaction; leaving her work as a governess and turning to nursing; applying repeatedly for more senior nursing positions, establishing a teaching hospital - and a profession within a nation - from scratch, despite repeated setbacks; not simply accepting fugitive soldiers under her shelter, but helping them secure false documents, money, and guides to reach safety. Edith never seemed to lack the courage to act, even when such action put her own life at risk." 

Edith was the Oscar Schindler of the Nazi era in WWII; forsaking the comfort of a good life and risking everything to shelter, nurse, protect, guide and transport prisoners of war to safety.

But when the Germans realized what she had done, they arrested her and forced her to sign a confession. She remained in prison for ten weeks thereafter and on 12 October 1915, Edith faced the firing squad and was executed.  

Before she died, she wrote these words, "I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I thank God for this ten weeks quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulties. This time of rest has been a great mystery. They have all been very kind to me. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realize that patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." 

Son, Edith is one of those rare personalities in history that you must never forget. But her courage and generosity are not rare to those who live life with a purpose. She knew who she wanted to be and stood steadfast by it. Guided by unshakeable principles, a steely resolve and a heart of compassion, Edith showed the world that one unassuming, lone nurse can make a difference, even in a cruel and senseless world. 

At this point, I am reminded of these words by the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, "He who has a Why to live for can bear with almost any How". 

My son, please search with all your heart for this often overlooked but highly relevant "Why to live". It is the only way your life will glow with purpose, deepen with meaning, and endure even during the worst of time. This “Why to live” will keep you meaningfully busy and distract you from the pain of this world.

Let me introduce you to the next person who understood this "Why to live". He was a Baptist minister, a civil rights activist, a Nobel prize winner and a man whose broken heart knew no hatred. He is Dr Martin Luther King.

If you are touched by the life of Edith Cavell for her heart of gold, this man should do the same for you for his heart of forgiveness. The space in this short letter will not do justice to his remarkable life. So, just a foretaste of it here will do. 

Dr King was a victim of many things. He was cruelly discriminated for being an African American, thwarted in every step of the way for his socioeconomic background, and even despised and jailed repeatedly for standing firm on one of the bedrock principles that America was founded upon, that is, freedom from discrimination by the color of one’s skin. His five-year-old son once asked him, “Daddy, why do white people treat coloured people so mean?

For every injustice he received, Dr King had every earthly-justified reason to fight back and rage on against the power-that-be. But he nevertheless kept his heart from the abyss of hatred and revenge. This is even so when he witnessed his mother being shot while she was playing the organ in her church. The assassin shot his mother because she was conveniently closer to him. The bullet was meant for his father. Dr King himself was a target of many assassination attempts and he was finally killed by one of them.

In the face of his valley of the shadow of death, Dr King stood up to be counted and penned these unforgettable lines, "I will go on thanking God for what I have left. For the rest of my days, I will not hate. I will not hate. I want to go on record that I will not hate."  He also wrote these words, "On some positions, cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it polite?" And vanity comes along and asks the question, " Is it popular?" But conscience asks the question, "Is it right?""

Son, there will come a time in your life where circumstances will test you, stretch you, and even plot to fail you. Do you then run or stand up to be counted? Do you cower and compromise or face the storm and ask, "Is it right?" 

But may ask: Aren't all these idealistic talks reserved for legends of history and not ordinary folks like me? I hope I had anticipated your reservation promptly, son. True, our ideals may at times be construed as clumsy and airy-fairy. In this world of pop moneyed culture, our ideals will only get in the way of transient fame and quick fortune at any costs. Sadly, in the same way that words like "virginity" and "prude" are considered positively antediluvian (outdated), our ideals suffer the same fate in the name of "progress", "post-modernity" and "enlightened thinking".

But son, keep this in mind: Our ideals are not on trial here; it is the lack of it that is. Many pay lip service to these ideals because a life of "action over inaction" costs too much. When Jesus admonished his disciples to count the cost and carry the cross, he is not asking them to do a mental calculation, but to offer a personal sacrifice. He is asking them to put the ideals into action, to be prepared to live them and even die for them. I think the greatest ideal is this, "God is love."

Dr King often asked himself, "If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live." The same sentiment was expressed by Edith Cavell, "...I have told you that devotion will give you real happiness, and the thought that you have done, before God and yourselves, your whole duty and with a good heart will be your greatest support in the hard moments of life and in the face of death."

You see son, your life ought to be a servant to what is right and a master over what is wrong. This is the ultimate measure of keeping our ideals alive. Jesus, Edith and Luther took those steps in complete subservient to Godly principles and denied all evil that strive with equal vigor to defeat their resolute march to their elected destiny. They made it victoriously not because they were too idealistic. They made it because their words and their actions matched. Goethe once said, "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."

Let me end with a more down-to-earth, closer-to-home example of a life driven by purpose or an unbreakable union. In the book titled Why Good Things Happen to Good People, authors Stephen Post and Jill Neimark recounted the life of a couple named Chester and Mildred. 

Unlike Edith or Martin Luther, who lived in treacherous times, with one facing the beast of war and the other the scourge of racism, the life of Chester and Mildred is as ordinary as any couple of our time. But what distinguished them is their unyielding devotion to one another. This august devotion is inspiring because they have been happily married for seven decades! 

Son, in order to stay so happily married for so many years, your love will have to be tested at one end and come forth shining at the other. Their marriage was equally tested and some of the tests were indeed heartbreaking.

They courted each other during the Great Depression. But since Chester's family moved frequently, they were often miles apart from each other. So, Chester had to walk fifty-six miles during the weekends to go on a date with Mildred. He would start his journey in the wee hours of Saturday morning just so that he could spend more time with her. 

But when Chester's family moved again, this time even further, about a hundred miles away, Chester had to give up walking to Mildred. Instead, he wrote letters to her. His faithful writings touched Mildred deeply and they finally married in 1935. 

After the marriage, Chester worked for a dollar a day clearing forest. On one occasion, he remembered he had five dollars in his pocket and he spent $4.98 of it to buy his wife a wedding ring. Things then went smoothly with the arrival of their children until world war two came. 

When Chester was called to serve in the marines, the couple's love was tested with two years of separation. It was a difficult time for them. After the war, Chester returned with injury and he spent the next four years in and out of hospital. Further, Chester had to undergo a back operation and the family had to sell off their farm to pay for it. 

To make ends meet, Mildred had to sew for a living and Chester, who was in a body cast, managed to make leather goods and sell purses. Life was definitely hard for them but their love was equally resilient. They loved their way out of the daily trials of life and stayed true to each other. Not long after, with Mildred's support, Chester sold his house and business and enrolled himself into college. 

While in college, Chester held down two jobs and Mildred worked as a seamstress in a private company. Soon, after graduating, Chester found a stable job as a design engineer. So far, their marriage valiantly weathered all that was expected of a marital triathlon: financial hardship, physical separation and illness. 

But the next trial pushed them to the edge.Their eleven year old daughter met with a tragedy. She was ran over by a stranger riding a bicycle and the accident severely damaged her lungs. She died three years later. 

One touching incident that Chester recalled was of Mildred crocheting some items for her daughter before her last visit to the hospital. Along the way, her daughter said, "Mom, I won't need those. But don't cry." Chester remembered that Mildred did not cry in front of her daughter. She waited until she passed away before she broke down in tears.

Despite all that they had gone through, Chester and Mildred stayed happily married for seventy loving years. Of their long marriage, the couple shared this, "one of our philosophies has been, don't let the sun go down on your anger. Realize deep down in your heart your love for one another, and that will give you the willingness to overlook inconsistencies and flaws.

Son, this is what our ideals look like when they are applied in a life. For it can be said that there is nothing more idealistic than this quaint phrase, "Love conquers all!"

So, let's recap. You cannot know what kind of person you want to be without knowing the purpose of your life. And I hope that the above examples have given you an idea of what living a purpose-driven life is about. 

But ultimately, it is a journey of self-discovery and it is a personal journey. It is yours to discover and yours to bring to pass. I cannot tell you what they are, your purpose in life, that is. You have yours and I have mine. Your mom has hers too. Your sisters will have to find theirs when the time is ripe.

Let your spirit bear out this next truth as I close, "Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." 

Have a great national day son. Love Daddy.

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