Rodin Thinker Statue

As Catholics get ready to celebrate Ash Wednesday, I’d like to reflect on the lessons that I learned from this religious holy day.  I’ve always found religion to be a vessel that provides answers to existential questions that at times trouble the soul.

“Memento, homo … quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” (cf. Gn 3:19). “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” Catholic priests repeat these words from the Gospel when applying a cross of ash to the foreheads of churchgoers on Ash Wednesday.

The challenge is that most parishioners forget about these words as soon as they leave the church, and go back to their old ways of living a life where they are the center of universe, the center of attention, where everyone has to stop and listen when they utter a few words.

And, yet, this dysfunctional behavior is learned at infancy. When we are born, we receive a lot of attention from our parents, grandparents, and adults. We can do no wrong. We are the life of the party – a party that lasts at times for too long.

The wise ones shed this aberrant behavior when they leave their parents’ homes and go on to college. They learn to embrace the famous quotation from the 16th century English poet John Donne: “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” They then realize that their success is tied up to the success of those around them; that they cannot do anything without relying on others’ expertise, assistance, and good will.

But the sad thing is that too many never graduate from the “me-first” school of thought. And the world is not a better place because of it.

Following are some life-changing lessons that I’ve learned in my journey to enlightenment.

Not too long ago, I was tasked with getting a gift to a very dear friend who was retiring from the Federal Government. I thought about getting him a crystal plaque that stipulated how great he had been while working for our federal agency. Next, I considered getting him a proclamation signed by our secretary that emphasized his achievements. But, soon, I realized the futility of these artifacts. My friend already had a whole array of plaques, medals, and proclamations hung on the wall. One more would not endear him more to those who knew him well. Moreover, I questioned their usefulness in his retirement. So, I ended up getting him a gift certificate that he could exchange for cash. The money, he could use for himself, for his family, or for charities.

Recently, I had lunch with a former college professor and mentor who was suffering from a respiratory ailment that forced him to carry a portable oxygen concentrator. I was amazed by the wise words that he shared with me. He told me that when you have a disability, you learn to view the world differently. You become more humble as you find your place in the universe. Degrees, where you graduated from, your grade point average, whom you hung out with, and the designer’ clothes that you liked to wear become unimportant. You realize that what is truly important is to stick around long enough to continue doing good deeds; to spend those special momentos with your immediate family and close friends that crooner Julio Iglesias likes to sing about; to wear only the clothes that make you feel comfortable; to acquire more wisdom to make the world better.  He was a changed man because he could see the bells would be tolling for him shortly.

And, then, the spotlight fell on me. For over thirteen years, I had tried to get promoted to the Senior Executive Service (SES) rank unsuccessfully. No one can say that I lacked the qualifications, as I have seen much less qualified applicants get promoted. I have also seen applicants who joined the SES rank because of whom they knew, as well as others who got an extra star on their shoulders for sleeping their way to the top. I’m certain that being Hispanic played a part in my non-selection, as the federal workforce has had a Hispanic underrepresentation challenge for the last forty-three years. I’m also sure that speaking with a slight accent was used against me, as some very foolish selecting officials equate speaking with an accent with thinking with an accent. But the bottom line was that my non-selection into the SES rank depressed me quite a bit. I was an unhappy, wandering mariner.

With time, I realized the futility of eradicating by myself all the flawed motives that these individuals used in the past to not promote me and other qualified Hispanics. I simply did not have sufficient time to complete this task. So, I stopped worrying about the things that I could not control and concentrated on those that I could. I accepted the fact that when I retire from federal service, when I become frail with age, a few extra dollars on my annuity and an SES title next to my name would not be a big help to me at all. Ego and vanity would not make me a better person.

I found peace in myself when I accepted the fact that what really mattered at work was the difference that I had made in the lives of others — the interns that I converted into permanent federal employees; the colleagues I mentored to understand the law that management guru John Maxwell preached that “one is too small a number to achieve greatness”; the supervisors that I convinced that we had to walk our own talk because there was nothing more lethal than asking managers and supervisors to diversify their staffs when our own civil rights offices were the least diverse places in our agencies; the words of encouragement that I offered the cleaning staff to strive for a better tomorrow; the op-eds that I authored and got published about important issues that needed to be aired — the lack of human and civil rights in Cuba, the 43-year Hispanic underrepresentation challenge in the federal workforce, the need to build bridges of understanding with other communities to facilitate the tearing down of walls of bigotry that have prevented them from living as one harmonious family, and the need to motivate others to stop taking the tranquilizing drug of gradualism to solve their problems and embrace “the fierce urgency of now!” These are the things that I would be remembered for!

But, most importantly, the urgency of enjoying those precious momentos with my immediate family and close friends. To show them by my deeds that they were the reason for attaining fulfillment in the autumn of my days. To tell them that I did these things because they made me feel like a useful and happy man, and not because of the accolades, fancy titles, monetary benefits that I cherished in the past.

At the end of our lives, we’ll return to dust. Our legacy will be the good deeds that we left behind.

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