‘Carpe diem: seize the day. Make your life extraordinary.’ (Dead Poets Society)
I was once invited by Lilin, my inspiring Malaysian sister-in-law, to speak at a University of the 3rd Age (U3A) event, for people who are retired from formal employment and interested to explore new ideas, experiences and themes. She invited me, simply, to share something of my own life story. I wasn’t sure where to start or to end or what to include in-between. How to distil a lifetime of experiences into a 45-minutes window? And, more importantly, what would people in this particular group find interesting, stimulating or worthwhile?
So I prayed, jotted down notes of what came to mind, and then shared what I found most meaningful. I hoped it wouldn’t sound too alien and that they would feel at least some sense of connection. At the end, I was astonished to see a queue of people forming to speak with me. Apart from polite thank-yous, person after person looked at me, some with tears in their eyes, and said something along the lines of, ‘I too felt that prompt, that calling, that you described here today. But I was too scared to follow it so I didn’t. And now I so wish I had.’
Some expanded their accounts of how they had chosen to live too safely, too comfortably, and how this had, over time, stifled their sense of curiosity, courage and faith. I tried to reassure them with Richard Bach's words: ‘A test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t.’ For many, however, I could still see that haunting look of spiritual and existential angst on their faces: ‘I was too scared then, and I’m still too scared. And now it’s all too late.’ The greatest risk is never to take a risk. The time to act is now.
I spent last week in Ethiopia, facilitating a vision-casting, relationship-building and insights-sharing event for an inspiring group of committed human rights activists from countries and contexts as diverse as: Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, United Kingdom and United States.
Listening to their accounts of lived experience, alongside the oft-harrowing accounts of other people and communities too, was a deeply-sobering and yet, at times, life-giving experience. These activists are followers of Jesus from diverse backgrounds who commit their lives and expertise to help ensure, where possible, protection and support for people and groups facing unspeakable persecution. They often take considerable personal risks in the course of their own work too.
One day, I went into a local town for a short break. A very poor, elderly man walked up and called out from behind me, a stranger. He grasped my hand, looked earnestly into my eyes and said, emphatically, “Whatever you need, reach out to God. He has the power to heal you.” Then, pointing upwards, as if to God, “He will give you whatever you need.” I felt completely entranced by this man’s presence. I asked his name. “ጥላሁን (Tilahun)”, he replied. I learned later it means: ‘shadow, guide, protector...’
This felt far more profound and spiritually-significant than a chance encounter. I returned to the work in a reflective mood, reminded of the mental and emotional burnout I had faced as a young human rights activist during the brutal civil war in El Salvador. At that time, my efforts had felt painfully impotent in the face of such overwhelming suffering. This mysterious figure reminded me to look upward as well as outward, and there beyond the heartbreak to discover transcendent hope.
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