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Finding no escape.

Geometric proofs taught me about failure.

Up until encountering them, I had certainly failed before.

Failed to dunk.

Failed to learn a legitimate skateboard trick.

You know, things like that.

However, the freshness of this type of failure was that success was more of a mirage and less of a clear impossibility.

When riding skateboards it was obvious that in order to get better, I needed to ride more hours and take more risks. I simply didn’t do these things, so it wasn’t a surprise when I wiped out.

When writing proofs in Geometry class, no matter how much I studied and how much extra help I attended, the correct answers evaded me like sand between my fingers.

A few months ago I felt this feeling all over again when in an Escape Room in D.C.

Having experienced one before, I was confident of my critical thinking skills and even found myself sizing up the other people in the room before we began. I had visions of being the Rosetta Stone, the one calling out clear directions, the one untying the Gordian Knot.

Instead, I found myself right back in sophomore year – frustrated, dejected, defeated.

Just to be clear, I’ve failed countless times, but these two seemed to fit together perfectly.

For most of my life I’ve looked at solutions as the aha moment, when statements and reasons are clear and acceptable, when the door finally opens.

I love, but have always struggled with Matthew 7:7-8,

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Sure, problems can be solved, doors can be opened, it might just take a while I guess. Whether it’s in this life is not for me to know, and I’m okay with that.

I’m comfortable knowing there are those out there with superior intellects, more money, or exotic opportunities. Comfortable because it’s true, the only false belief is me thinking I have a handle on things.

The reality is, there’s no way out.

Now, instead of searching for proof or a way out, I’m getting more and more comfortable with being right here.

Our society is obsessed with the next best_________

thing

person

job

opportunity.

If I’ve put in the effort, there is nothing wrong with problems remaining unsolved.

My life is not something to be figured out.

My life is not something to be escaped.

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Out of the way

The paradox that has dominated my recent thoughts:

To occupy more space, get out of the way.

The dirty table had yet to be cleared, which was to be expected on a busy afternoon in Boston. This didn’t stop a group from claiming the territory in their name, jumping others on the list that was being curated by the maître d’ who initially missed the land grab.

Eventually the group was politely asked to move (a request that was not well received) and not only wait for the table to be cleaned, but for it to be their turn. The rightful group had been quietly and calmly biding their time and was eventually rewarded and served with attention and gratitude for their small, but far from insignificant signal of respect – listening, following directions, and getting out of the way.

Now, you might be reading this and like my first reaction, come to the defense of the group that was in the wrong or even say, “what’s the big deal?” Well, to provide further context: It was a restaurant. It was busy. The maître d’ had left her post for no more than one minute to help seat another table and the group did not wait, did not even pause to consider the other people clearly waiting to be seated. Instead, they saw an opportunity, a table, clearly dirty but empty, and pounced.

If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, there is little worse than someone who makes it a point to occupy space.

When I use the word space in this context, my intention is for it to represent a concept, one with a positive and negative interpretation. In this type of space, I’m not just speaking of physical space but also attention, time, and effort that takes away from oneself or others.

Examples being: asking for tables to be pushed together when they clearly should not be, speaking very loudly in a big group and being overly disruptive of other groups, making demands of the kitchen that aren’t reasonable and the list goes on, very simply – unnecessary special treatment and accommodations.

This next part is where this turns from a rant to a reflection.

The other night I attended Reflecting on Experiences of Racism in the Catholic Church – A Listening Session. It was an evening filled with prayer and reflection, which included unforgettable storytelling, particularly from Deacon Seigfried Presberry who has dedicated his life towards serving others through prison ministry and countless hours in his home parish. He shared about how he has experienced rejection for being a black catholic deacon. His story was one of perseverance and relentless compassion. Ultimately he was able to minister to a man who, in their first interaction, met him with words of hate. Despite this initial rejection, they went on to build a relationship and Deacon Presberry even presided at his funeral.

Listening to Deacon Presberry speak about not being welcomed and not feeling worthy, challenged me to reflect on my behaviors, how I’ve taken or not taken steps to be welcoming, to invite others into space – personal or shared. Personal being my experience, shared being a group experience i.e. my faith community, circle of friends.

The Deacon was pushed to the brink, he even thought about quitting his ministry – leaving what he loved, all of the sacred spaces in which he was a part of – the pain was that severe. What brought him back to earth was turning to God, focusing on Him and getting out of the way. Through his constant humble service, he modeled what it meant to be saintly, what it truly meant to be a disciple. Even if he never got the validation from the man who initially hurt him, even if there was no conversion of heart, I know he would have continued his ministry recognizing that the scope of his work was so much greater than he could imagine. The problem with this story is that it does not need to be this way. Racism does not need to be accepted as an inevitable part of our way of proceeding, as just another painful reality that needs to be overcome in order to fully live.

His reflection made me think about all the times I’ve sat down at the proverbial dirty table, not thinking about how I might be occupying space in a way that burdened others, even in small ways. It’s nice to think that I’ll always wait in line, get out of the way, be cognizant of people and my surroundings, but it is not a guarantee.

My privilege tempts me to occupy space, the wrong space. I’m aware of that and am currently concerning myself with making room. More space for God, love, positivity, truth and growth.

Beyond this, doing my part to see, value, and celebrate each person I meet, making it clear that they are welcome.

Maybe my paradox needs an addendum:

To occupy more space (in heaven) get out of the way.

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I’m bad with names.

My name – I didn’t choose it, but I hold it close like the Christmas gift I didn’t think I’d receive.

When I die, I’ll be fine with people saying a lot of things about me – everyone is entitled to their opinion. One thing I won’t be fine with is being remembered as a hypocrite.

Why this is so important to me goes all the way back to the Gospel of John 8:7

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Recently I’ve realized one of my major faults is relying on the excuse, “I’m bad with names.”

I have a coworker who often says my full name when I see them on campus. “Good morning, Brendan O’Kane!”

I can’t tell you how that makes me feel.

Ego? Maybe.

Narcissism? Possible.

Or it could be sometime much deeper – the fact that someone sees me, and put in the effort to call me by my name.

Something I didn’t choose, but I cherish.

In John 8, the crowd wanted to charge a woman “caught in adultery” and they wanted the approval of Jesus.

In rereading this passage I was struck by the lack of name for the woman.

Maybe it is intentional – to highlight the fact that it’s easier to demean someone without using their name, avoiding the name can dehumanize the subject.

Assuming Jesus doesn’t know her name either, he too omits her name. However, in his response, he treats her as if he knew her.

Walking down the street the other day, I saw a former student who graciously pulled me aside to say hello.

I blanked on his name.

We were eating at the same restaurant and after a few minutes of talking, we went our separate ways.

Frustrated with myself, I took to the internet and tried remembering some of his interests to see if I could google an old sports roster from around the years I knew him.

And then it hit me, I remembered.

A few minutes later, he passed by my table and I acknowledged him by name.

He proceeded to sit down next to me.

Fifteen minutes later we parted ways.

Our initial conversation was surface level, but then it seemed as if once called by his name, his true identity was revealed – we started catching up about life, God and the future.

Maybe remembering his name didn’t make a difference, but I’d like to think it did.

Often times I get nervous when meeting people or approaching a larger group that requires remembering names. In the past, I’ve brushed this off and been comforted to know it’s a common flaw. However, now I am seeing this challenge with new eyes, a new level of importance.

So many times I pass people on campus or on the street and do not call them by name. Now I know that just because I might not know their name or am struggling to remember it, like the woman in John 8, does not mean they are nameless. I must do what I can to learn, or to at least make them feel special, feel noticed.

If I don’t, well then I’m a hypocrite.

“Good morning, Brendan O’Kane!”

What a gift to give, a stone not thrown.

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Begin With the End User in Mind

Don’t throw liquids in the trash.

It’s taken me a while to fully comprehend the depth of this request.

When working at a YMCA in Winter Park, Colorado, my lifeguarding responsibilities were not limited to saving over ambitious swimmers or helping the youth get comfortable putting their heads underwater for the first time. Part of my “other duties as assigned” included cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash.

One night, after a long day of swinging my whistle, and guarding lives, I made a trip to the dumpster with a large trash bag filled that was lined with someone’s discarded Big Gulp. Due to a rip in the bag, my leg ended up caked in ketchup and Dr. Pepper.

I remember being so mad.

Disproportionately mad.

Looking back, it was probably just a kid who got bored of his beverage and rather than leaving it at his table, threw it in the trash like they were taught to do.

In all the jobs I’ve held since the YMCA I’ve taken out trash at some point. Some jobs more than others. One common theme that rings true is you don’t throw liquids in the trash. It’s just rude. I think it happens because we often don’t know the end user.


About seven years ago I took a graduate school class on the educational planning tool, Understanding by Design, affectionately referred to as UbD. At least once a class my professor would remind us to begin with the end in mind. It’s simple and brilliant. Where do you want your students to end up – what skills and outcomes should they be able to have and produce? Start with that, work backwards to make sure all areas are covered. It builds a greater sense of buy-in and ensures these outcomes are at the forefront of all planning.

The other day when I had a cup of coffee that had gone cold, I was about to toss it in the trash, but then I remembered that in a few hours, someone would be tying up that bag and carrying it to the dumpster. That person does not deserve to have the result of my selfishness all over their shoes.

Lesson: If I begin with the end user in mind, the people who will be the beneficiaries of my actions, it provides a great check on even the seemingly insignificant decisions like holding on to that cup of cold coffee and pouring it down a drain before tossing it. Like my experience with taking out the trash, cleaning bathrooms at some of my past jobs is part of the reason I take a few extra minutes to ensure the person after me has a cleaner and more pleasant experience than I did.

In the end, who knows, maybe Jesus Christ is on trash and bathroom duty.

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Drop Every Thing

It fits in most pockets, contains 196 pages and has changed my life.

When reading about Mychal Judge, the Irish-American Franciscan Friar who died during the 9/11 attacks, I found out that he carried a couple books on him at all times. He was a man of action who proceeded with his care for others as close to St. Francis as he could, and these books guided him. AA, in many ways, saved his life and sustained him, so he carried a book focused on the program and a second book – The Way of Love by Anthony de Mello, SJ.

Inspired by stories of Mychal Judge, I decided to order The Way of Love to see if it could be something I carry with me. I’ve always struggled with keeping rosary beads or prayer cards on me, but I admire those who do – they are physical reminders of our spiritual nature.

When the book arrived, I dove in and very quickly came up for air.

When it comes to self-improvement, the way of thinking I’ve subscribed to accounts for societal limitations, i.e. the life and hardships one has endured can make it more difficult to find peace. I’ve believed this because it seems utopic to think we can all conquer our demons despite what has occurred. I believe that it is easier for those who have a strong support network of family, friends, and resources that help ensure needs are met.

My problems have always been met by a listening ear or a supportive spirit. However, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, despite all this, I still wrestle with issues that are serious to me.

Thinking I have a handle on this topic, I eagerly opened The Way of Love,and read carefully.

With each passing paragraph, it became clear that I knew nothing.

Look at it this way: You see persons and things not as they are but as you are. If you wish to see them as they are you must attend to your attachments and the fears that your attachments generate. Because when you look at life it is these attachments and fears that will decide what you will notice and what you block out.

I see the world the way I do because it is through my lens, this does not mean I see reality, no matter how much I try. All I see is my reality. My bias, my resentment, my interests, my opinions on how things should be, my values – my attachments and fears.

Struggling to breathe, I found myself putting the book down numerous times. When truths are revealed, often times I am tempted to be like Jonah and flee (as depicted in Jonah 1 below)

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

Anthony de Mello does not ignore the fact that we all have different experiences, however, he focuses on what we often do have the power to control – our minds.

He extols the importance of ridding oneself of attachments for when we do that, then we can truly love, then we can truly live. Much like in The Four Agreements he emphasizes the importance of not giving the approval or disapproval of others too much weight.

How easily we are taken in by the judgement of other people and then form an image of ourselves based on this judgment. In order to be truly liberated you need to listen to the so-called good and bad things that they tell you, but to feel no emotion at the feedback any more than a computer does when data is fed into it. Because what they say about you reveals more about them than about you.

This is revolutionary. My whole life I’ve been a pleaser, constantly worried about letting people down and not being enough so when I have encountered a loved one or co-worker who extols who I am or something I’ve done, I am victim to this – placing way too much value on being accepted. He states,

What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you. 

To be free is to be aware.

Before reading this book I knew there was a great deal I needed to let go of, insecurity, a low sense of self-worth and a distrust for those who express love towards me, however, now I believe I have much more power, much more of a role than I thought in the creation of my own despair and of my own freedom.

I am now aware of the severity of the need to rid myself of my attachments and fears, and life will never be the same.

Home

January 21st was my birthday and more importantly, the day our nation celebrated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I have taken this as an invitation to deeper contemplation on his importance to my life.

Often remembered as a proponent of peace and unity, his journey was far from what he desired for others. Like Jesus in the garden, he seemed to know when his life was close to an end and like Moses, despite seeing the Promised Land, he would not get there. His prayerful and tireless work for justice included being insulted and imprisoned. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16th, 1963, he penned a prophetic call, rooted in righteous frustration:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

*Emphasis added

I’m constantly reminded that just because things might be going well for me and systems seem to be working through the lens of my physical well-being, this does not mean that all is well.

Roxane Gay, in a talk recently at Loyola University, spoke about how she does not endorse the word “Ally” not because it isn’t a well-intentioned attempt but simply because it doesn’t go far enough. She urged those who are white and wish to accompany a person of color, should do so in a way that suffering is shared and felt. There should be less distance.

This spoke to me because right now, by many metrics, my life is good, but since I believe God is in all people and all things, the suffering of one of my brothers or sisters should continually call me to action – compassion, companionship and shared suffering.

Last night I read a short story by Langston Hughes titled “Home” which recounts the homecoming of Roy Williams, a black man who was a musician – a violinist – returning home from Europe, due to illness. On July 28, 1932 – the day he returned – at the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, troops forcibly removed thousands of veterans who were demanding bonus pay for service during WWI.

With the backdrop of the Great Depression which was a communal experience of shared suffering for many, Roy Williams eventually finds himself not welcome in his own hometown due to hatred and racism and ends up being lynched by a mob.

Today I was informed about what happened to Jussie Smollett. The Chicago PD released the following statement,

“Overnight the Chicago Police Department received a report of a possible racially charged assault and battery against a cast member of the television show Empire. Given the severity of the allegations, we are taking this investigation very seriously and treating it as a possible hate crime.”

We rarely ever know all the facts, and I know it’s rash to jump to conclusions, but there have been enough of these occurrences to prove hate is alive and well. This is clear.

I know there are so many positive and inspirational stories out there too. Stories of people doing amazing work – advocates who are dedicating their lives to this work, to stopping this hate – this is not to discount any of those.

When wrestling with my emotions after some of the details were reported, including the use of a rope around his neck, I am reminded of the words of Martin, Roxane, and Langston.

I am reminded of the words of Jesus – who experienced life with us, without shying away from suffering.

John 14:2-3
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

There is room for ALL in this world, unfortunately, even when some people are “home” they’re still not welcome.

I don’t like giving advice and would rather speak on what I personally need to do about this so all I’ll say is this: I know hatred and racism are not new but that should not diminish, excuse or normalize what is happening and it’s clear – there is no room for moderation.

A shovel, not an ice pick.

Years ago, after months of lurking, I finally posted in a Facebook group.

It was one of those neighborhood groups where people would comment on various events, everything from barbeques to break-ins. Fear and aggravation dominated the page. News of car windows being smashed and lamentations about the decaying of the neighborhood got the most responses and I consumed all of them.

I always felt uneasy when some of the responses to reported violence seemed to dehumanize the accused, and even further, the neighborhood in general. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not endorsing violence nor do I think anyone should have to experience fear and I understand we all want to protect ourselves and our property. The confounding and concerning thing was that most of the comments were by people who had never experienced the crime being described, yet their responses would make one think they had, were and will.

Before eventually leaving the group, one winter when the snow fell freely and often, I decided to create a post offering my snow removal services. I said I’d shovel for free for the elderly or those simply unable to do so and for a fee for anyone else.

This post was met with absolute support and an outpouring of likes.

The next two days consisted of trudging around the city with my shovel, meeting people, clearing blocks and steps of businesses and homes. I was even invited into living rooms and offered hot coffee – a welcomed respite from the cold.

Often times I encountered an icy walkway that remained dangerous, even after the few inches of snow were removed. Even the edges of the shovel weren’t enough to break some of the ice. Sometimes I would have to walk away defeated because after all, I had a shovel, not an ice pick.

I did what I could, and both of those nights I remember feeling really good about my contribution. There was a need, and I was able to be of service and provide a temporary solution.

What I didn’t do was solve any of the bigger issues facing Baltimore city, affordable housing, racial injustices, or the disparity between educational performances in our public schools compared to those in many parts of the county.

I didn’t offer to do that, nor was I expected to do so. These are issues, icebergs that are easier avoided than faced.

Ever since that experience, every time there’s a snow day – I’m out there with my shovel. Today I cleaned off some ramps, steps, and walkways. One house I’ve cleared the past few times belongs to a woman who came to the door to thank me and told me she had the flu. I told her to rest up and went about my work. Before finishing, I encountered an icy patch and found myself again, in need of an ice pick. Roughly ten minutes later, the ice relented and the steps were deemed safe and walkable.

On my way home, all I could think about was what I had done and more importantly, what I hadn’t.

Sure, shoveling is nice, necessary and good. It was a positive way to spend a few hours and it surely helped some people in the community, but what about the ice?

This reflection has reminded me to not diminish the importance of service and acts of kindness, but to make sure that they are done properly and for the right reasons. Intentionality and execution matter. I need to be aware when a shovel is a start and is certainly better than sitting back and lurking, but it simply isn’t enough. There needs to be a conversion of the heart, enough to motivate me to spend some extra time learning and taking action concerning those icebergs and at the very least, to remember to pick up an ice pick before heading out the door.