To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what reminded me of this poem tonight, but as I listened to the silence this evening, I suddenly remembered Emily Dickinson.
If I can stop one heart from breaking
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
To have a purpose, a goal, a mission – that is the core of any existence. The absence thereof is one of my greatest fears, to live an empty and meaningless life. I suppose the need to have a purpose and the will to face each day with renewed courage and strength stems from a childhood filled with change and challenge. I didn’t have the luxury of disappearing into the background or blending in naturally with the others. On the contrary, I always stood out like a sore thumb and it haunted me. It still does. How many of you were constantly told by your parents, teachers, mentors, employers Don”t just go through the motions or sit there, find a purpose, discover the meaning of your life. The meaning of your life – not the meaning of life.
An old friend from many decades ago put it best – no seas un IBM. I have no idea where Mauricio is now, but I will never forget his words. I stared at him one afternoon in Middle School after he said that and I asked what on earth he meant by that. IBM? As in the tech company? He laughed and said NO! IBM – immensa bola de manteca (huge ball of lard). In other words, don’t get stuck in your own mess or self-pity. Keep moving. Keep flowing.
I’ve met some marvellous and inspiring people along the way who changed my life in the simplest or the most radical manner possible. They made a difference, good or bad, but I learned about human nature, the depths of the depravity of some, the desperate need for kindness and understanding of others, or simply letting someone know that they are not alone in the struggle, and that they matter.
Sometimes I thought of Emily Dickinson’s words and wished that I could have stopped my own heart from breaking, eased my own ache, relieved the pain, or been able to help a robin back into its next. But selfishness was never allowed, and I lived with the pain and the ache in silence until it shattered the core that held me together.
But as I look back over the years, I accept and embrace the fact that everything I went through had a purpose. It enables me to recognise the pain, ache, longing and sorrow in others and understand them, because I have been there.
The mission statement of my alma mater, the Ateneo de Manila, to be men and women for others, was always the basis of my career choices. To serve others, to uplift the downtrodden, and live a life of kindness and generosity, propelled me forward as a development worker, leader, parent, and community member. But only now do I see the greatest lesson of all – in order to be all those things for others, I should have also included myself in the equation. Selflessness is one thing, but we so often sacrifice our own happiness and peace of mind for others that we lose ourselves in the process.
So thank you Emily Dickinson, for reminding me not to live in vain.