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Eight Birds, Two Mountains, and One Big Chevy Malibu

“I am convinced my life belongs to the whole community; and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn brightly as possible before turning it over to future generations.”

These are the words of George Bernard Shaw. In a few short sentences Shaw sums up everything that I, for years, have tried to define so inarticulately. I began high school as a shy, pudgy girl, the girl hiding behind stringy brown locks of hair and who wore the same nondescript gray tennis shoes every day. At this point in my life, this quote would have meant little if anything to me. I had no concept of service or passion and had no great theory on honor. At this point, selfish and materialistic didn’t even begin to describe me. Watching from the sidewalk as my newly licensed peers zoomed by in their new cars, I felt nothing but pity for myself and contempt for the world around me for not giving me what I thought I was entitled to. Despite my selfishness through my early teenage years, somehow I never lost a sense of compassion I was blessed to have picked from my now weathered, silver-haired father. Through luck or the grace of God, amazing people were somehow drawn to me. I was blessed to meet several people who showed me what it was to be, quite simply, a human being. Shaw states that the goal in life is to be capable of hard work, to live boldly, and to gain a passion for life, that will live on long after your last breath on this earth. With these words he conveys the three characteristics of what I believe to be the timeless, unadulterated qualities that define each and every one of us: willingness to serve, passion, and, probably most important, integrity.

When I was younger, maybe five or six, every Wednesday afternoon I waited inside the front window of my family’s house with my eyes glued to the speck where the road appeared from over the hill nearby. When my grandma’s banana yellow Malibu finally topped the hill I would jump to my feet and run out the door before the car could even come to a stop in our driveway. Grandma Cressie and I had a date every Wednesday at 4:00; we never missed the weekly story hour at the dilapidated and smelly old public library. I still remember how the storyteller could take me absolutely anywhere just with her words and my imagination, I remember how this hour was the best hour of my entire week, but I remember amazingly few specific stories. The one story I do remember well enough to retell now is a Native American story describing their beliefs about how the birds came to be respected in the hierarchy that they are. Everyone knows that the eagle is the most majestic bird, but few people know of the tale describing how he claimed this position.

Many years ago, before there were humans upon this earth, the animals roamed free. The birds, being the only animals able to fly, roamed freely over the skies. One day, the birds decided they needed a leader; after much argument, they decided they would choose a leader according to who could fly the highest. All at once the birds leapt into the sky. Slowing first was the chickadee; his wings were far too small to carry him very high. Next the robin fell back, leaving only the blue jay, eagle, hawk, owl, and vulture still rising. Slowly they all dropped down until only the eagle and the owl were left. Both were growing extremely tired as they soared higher to the cheers of the other birds. One moment before they were both about to give up, the birds left on the ground saw a tiny speck rise from the back of the eagle just as he began to lose altitude. The birds cheered madly as they realized the speck was the sparrow, rising high above, thanks to the lift from the eagle. Immediately, the birds chose the eagle as their leader because he had borne the weight of another bird when he, alone, could have easily overtaken the owl. Despite the physical burden of helping another achieve his best, he chose selflessly to help the sparrow and sacrifice his chance of winning the competition. To this day, the eagle remains a sign of inspiration and motivation.

George Bernard Shaw says it is a privilege to help others when you belong to a community. I believe one of the greatest laws of life is to understand our responsibility to a community much greater than ourselves and to learn to sacrifice ourselves for others. It’s fairly easy to serve others with our hands but there are totally different aspects of service that many people overlook. Service is not just helping an elderly woman with her groceries or volunteering in a children’s ward at a hospital; service is something you do with every part of your being. We must also have the ability to listen. I feel that listening is the single best service we can provide to anyone. We must develop an ear that can listen not only to words but can truly hear the strength, compassion, and humility to take action.

In eighteen years of wandering, I’ve met people who were honest, altruistic, and hard working, but for some reason had not impacted the world the way they could have. It was in thinking of that that I added passion to my list of laws of life. People with character have a respect for rules, but they are also fascinated with creative answers to life’s little problems. People with character do not scale for “right” answers; they create pathways to their own solutions. People with character question, challenge, and change the world. People with strong morals but who still
remember humanity are willing to do whatever it takes to leave the world even slightly better than when they found it. Shaw compares life to a flame, not just any flame, but a bright, blazing torch. This comparison is one that I love.

Several months ago I had a life changing experience at National Leadership Camp in backcountry Colorado. As I sat in an open air chapel erected near the top of a mountain and breathed in the August air chilled by the night and the high altitude, I heard some of the most ordinary-seeming people say the most amazing things I have ever heard in my life. As Sharon, our director, slowly mounted the steps to the podium I could not take my eyes off the amazing view of the Mummy Range and the moon slowly rising above it. When Sharon arrived at the podium she turned to look at the view as well before pointing up to the first star that had appeared in the sky and said, “Each of you have a flame inside you. It is much like this star.” There was a pregnant pause for emphasis before Sharon continued: “As the night grows darker, this star will grow brighter...until morning, when the sky will lighten and we will no longer need the stars to navigate by. The flame inside of you is very similar; you shall serve as a beacon of light to those around you. When the world appears to have grown dark, you will show others the fire. Your fire will grow brighter and brighter until the day you are no longer needed or are needed more someplace else.” I think that Shaw believes, as I do, that a flame represents passion, and the larger the flame, the more powerful and insatiable the passion. Shaw knows that the darkness of the entire world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle, nor can a world of skepticism darken the heart of a believer. Like every National Leadership Camp delegate before me, I light a candle each night to remind myself of the passion that I have and to reconnect me to the lights that I know exist across the country.

A few years ago, I was able to take a state and local government class from a veteran Kansas State Legislator named Rex. Rex spent twenty-five years in the Kansas State Legislature and was there when the death penalty was under heavy debate. One night at class Rex asked his class of three students at the local community college what the “honest” thing was to do: vote what his conscience was screaming at him, or vote what his constituents favored. Morally and religiously, Rex knew what to do, but he also knew his job was to accurately reflect the views of those he represented. It was then that I realized just how difficult the position of being an honest leader was.

We often think that an honest day’s work is an easy thing to do, but the fact is that for many people it is not. Finally, each of us must have a self-defined sense of what integrity is. Whatever religion we follow, whatever belief system we were raised with, at the end of the day we must be at peace with our actions and ourselves, and I believe that in most cases, integrity develops only through hard work and trial and error. Through my experience in student leadership and coordinating student projects, the projects I learned the most from were the projects I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into and then failed. I learned to admit my mistakes, pick myself back up, and move on.

I once met a man, Jamie Clark, who had a passion for climbing and had recently climbed Mount Everest — only the eighth Canadian to ever do so. The interesting thing about Jamie was that he had failed twice before finally reaching the summit on the third attempt. Each attempt his team made took two to three years of training and fundraising before they could try again. Jamie developed his character and integrity because he refused to give up despite normally crippling injuries and amazing odds against him. Each time his team tried the ascent they learned more, and though failing twice was heartbreaking they improved more each time, and their third attempt was one of the fastest climbs of Mount Everest ever.

These qualities, willingness to serve, passion, and integrity, are what define us. Unfortunately, these qualities in a person are very hard to develop without actual real life experience; they are characteristics that develop, most of the time, in our darkest hours. I’ve come a long way from the hidden, quiet girl who yearned for a pair of name brand shoes and a new car. Today, I am the outgoing woman who believes every word worth speaking should be said with enthusiasm and who plans on joining the Peace Corps before getting any traditional job after college.

Looking back, I realize even the examples I have presented were not the life changing moments that developed my character; rather, they were moments I looked upon for guidance and inspiration when I hit rock bottom. Character is something we find inside ourselves in our most desperate times and something that defines every action we make.

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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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