Defining Success


On Christmas, my wife and I visited one of our young men in prison. Of all my friends, he’s the one who enjoys Christmas the most, especially the anticipation, the expectation, and the promise of a happy time, a brighter tomorrow.

After five and a half years in prison, his spirit is brighter now that it’s ever been. He’s grown in so many ways, and achieved many of his goals. In prison, he’s actually had goals and found ways to achieve them. Before that, life was just survival, slogging through chaos and drugs, of being treated indifferently, without love, and not knowing who he was or where he was headed.

Now, he’s found purpose and meaning. He’s making peace with the demons in his life, and has found the strength and courage to look deep inside of himself, and to finally love himself, and all the possibilities he has in his life.

He wanted socks for Christmas, making sure everyone knew it, too. Now, he’s a wealthy man, Mr. Big in the world of socks. He’s the happy recipient of forty pairs of socks, socks of nearly every size and color. He has socks everywhere now, new socks to try on every day for over a month.

Yes, he had a successful Christmas, all the socks he could ever want. In the telling of his story, his laugh and his big smile light up his face; he knows now that he is loved and respected by so many people. He’s figured out the magic of Christmas, the reason for the season.

He’s successful in so many other ways this year. He’s taken charge of his life, looking deep inside of himself, and taking charge of who he is, and where he is going. He’s embraced his new maturity. He’s taken on his self confidence and is moving ahead. He’s found his courage and is nourishing and loving his soul.

He’s the person Robert Louis Stevenson was writing about when he said,
“That man is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much, who has gained the respect of the intelligent men and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who leaves the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had.”  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

This year, many people I know have taken stock of their lives, summoned their courage, and moved ahead. Their accomplishments are many, and I’ve been applauding their journeys, and marveling at their determination and sacred intentions in their lives. It has been a year of transformation and a year of dramatic and momentous growth. Old demons have been called out of the basement, new directions has been set, and the tough, sweaty and hard work has been done. And, in that work, our communities are stronger, more vibrant, richer in so many ways.

Some people look to Washington politicians to make the big changes they want to see in the world and in their lives. Yet, the real change and the real work is done right here, inside my friends and neighbors, the farmer, the waitress, the young man in prison. The real change makers are right here, and the work is getting done. People are becoming transformed, people making a real difference.

Like my young friend in prison, people are taking inventory of who they are inside, and grasping the power they have to change. And, then, they are stepping out, and doing the hard, gut level work, and moving ahead.

They see the richness in their lives, not by the number of socks they got for Christmas, but in the way they love and are loved.

Taking Mandela’s Life Into My Heart


“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

Many words are being written about the life and the death of this great man. He lived a life of courage, living his convictions, and, in spite of overwhelming pain and suffering and obstacles, he did what was right. He focused on what was decent, and what was just, and moved others ahead, towards justice and compassion.

Each one of us can do the same. We may not be leaders of social movements, and we may not be able to speak to millions of people, become president of a country, or win the Nobel Prize. Yet, each of us, in our own ways, can lead lives of value, integrity, and advance those values and morals that we each hold dear.

I can do the right thing. Each one of us can. And, it starts with taking a step in that new, unfamiliar, often awkward direction.

Often, doing the right thing is profound, and astonishing to others. And, in that action, and in the act of others witnessing the doing of right, and the demonstration of living morally and righteously, changes their lives as well.

Nelson Mandela was all about change. And, he did that, one person at a time. His speeches, his writings, his one on one encounters, profoundly changed others, one person at a time.

His life was a way of giving all of us permission to encounter hatred and bigotry, and to be consciously active in not living with those values, and to work towards a higher good. He gave an example for us to follow. He let us see that we all have choices, and we can decide to live differently.

Living this is hard work, but also simple. Change your attitude, change your intention, and move in a different direction. Embrace love, and not hatred. Be intentional in what you do. Live your values.

The great people in history have done that, people who are able to show us simple truths, and to move the direction of their lives in accordance with those simple truths. The examples are powerful, and stun us with their sheer simplicity and beauty.

Yet, we make that choice hard, finding lots of excuses, and resisting moving out of our old habits, our old ways of thinking, and being seduced by the status quo, old ways of thinking, being caught up in the thought patterns of hatred, distrust, and fear.

I see people all around me being brave and courageous, just as Nelson Mandela lived, people dealing with hatred, prejudice, ignorance; people dealing with addictions, injustice, and fear. They face their challenges, they speak their values and morals out loud, and they move into action. They take life head on, and forge ahead, against the headwinds of social pressure and old ways of thinking and living, rejecting hatred and fear.

In the coming days, we will read and hear many wise words, and hear many stories about Nelson Mandela and his life. We will see the famous and powerful gather at his funeral and offer heartfelt eulogies. We will be inspired and we will honor his great contributions and how he helped bring change to his country, and how he provoked the world to follow his lead.

Yet, if we really want to honor his life, and to give meaning and celebration for the life that he lived, and how he helped to transform a culture of racism, intolerance and fear, into a society taking on bigotry and hatred, then each of us has to take his message and his life into our hearts. His message is about changing ourselves and our lives from within, to love ourselves and the world unconditionally.

How am I going to make a difference? How am I going to move forward, embracing and living unconditional love? How am I going to change myself and my community and move towards a healthy, peace-loving view of life? How do I respond to the hatred, bigotry and fear that I find inside of myself? Am I brave enough to move on and move away from what I don’t want to be?

Nelson Mandela called each of us to action. He wrote inspiring books, and gave motivating speeches. He practiced forgiveness and reconciliation. Yet, his intention was to call upon his readers and his listeners to look deep into their hearts, and to move into action, to live our values and our morals, to live lives filled with love and hope, with compassion and forgiveness.

Today, I will look deep inside of myself, calling out my morals and my ethics, calling out my true intentions for my life, and for this world. I will call out my fears and my biases, and put them out on the table for me, and the world, to see, in all that reality, warts and all. I will dig deep and I will take a wobbly step or two, and move ahead, towards my true intentions and my higher purpose.

—Neal Lemery, 12/6/2013

A Courageous Dilemma


We often think heroes are the folks somewhere else, the people on the front page or on the TV news, people who have done something amazing. They’re the people meeting the President, getting a medal.

But, we have heroes here, right in my town. And, sometimes, I get to be a witness to some amazing acts of courage and determination to just do the right thing.

A friend of mine is facing a serious dilemma. Their work, and their values and morals, and what is truly in their best interest are now at loggerheads. Life isn’t working out the way they want it, and there’s a lot of conflict, a lot of strife.

And, it’s becoming clear that the right thing to do is make some big changes, and to move on. That means giving up some things that are near and dear to their heart. Yet, they aren’t able to fully live their morals and values the way things are now.

They are at the crossroads, and the road is muddy, and there are a lot of questions, and not as many answers.

My friend has wrestled with all of this, and keeps coming back to thinking they need to live their morals and values, and be true to themselves, to honor their core values. And, when they’ve looked at their dilemma in that way, the choices become clear, and the path ahead opens up, and they can move forward.

They’re unstuck, now, and they’ve figured it out. Do the right thing, be true to their values, and find the courage to move ahead, to embrace change. Once they’ve come around to living life according to their beliefs, the choices are a lot easier, a lot clearer.

This conflict hasn’t been easy. There’s been a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of conversation over coffee with friends, a lot of wandering in the desert of uncertainty and doubt. And, in that darkness, they’ve found their stars again, and they’ve refocused on their beliefs and morals. Their compass has found True North again, and they are ready to make their move.

I’ve helped, just a bit, in that journey. I’ve listened, and put my judging and second guessing to the side. My role as friend in all this has been to listen, and to repeat back to them what they are saying, so they can hear their own words, their own values, through another voice.

My friend has figured it out. I don’t need to decide for them, and I don’t need to analyze the dilemma through my own values and beliefs. I just need to let them hear what they are saying, and let they say and hear their own advice, their own solution to their dilemmas.

I’d want that for me, when it’s my turn in the box of paradox, dilemma, and conflict. Someone to hold up that mirror, and let me see myself for what I am, and for what I believe in, and want to achieve. We all need that person in our lives to give us permission to get out the compass, and find our True North.

My friend is moving on, taking steps now in the direction they’ve chosen, and feeling pretty happy about it. They aren’t expecting to get a medal from the President, but they deserve one, for being courageous and for doing the right thing.

Neal Lemery 11/5/2013