nursery rhymes and reasons

We learned to play together.

We learned to get along with others.

We learned to paint.

We learned to put our things away.

We learned to work with clay.

We learned to sit and pay attention.

We learned to do things for ourselves.

How quickly I forgot.

My mother was an educator for most of her career and is the reason I still have the diploma pictured above. Molding young minds – mostly through play – she would patiently correct, teach and support the youth, like working with clay.

Caring, sharing, being kind, being helpful – these were the traits of a contributing member of the class. Cleaning up was praised, and focus was rewarded with experiences of wonder and laughter.

In the words of Anthony de Mello, we’ve all been programmed. Our experiences and interactions have shaped us, for better or worse. Over time, we have become deeply entrenched in our beliefs about the world, and often surround ourselves with people who affirm us. We think we have things figured out, and only are occasionally surprised by new ideas or happenings.

Something I’ve noticed recently is our tendency to ask about the future over the present.

The single being asked about meeting someone.

The dating asked about getting engaged.

The engaged asked about getting married.

The married about getting a house.

The homeowners about having kids.

You get where this is going, because it’s natural. I find myself doing it too. It wasn’t until recently when I was in a conversation with a friend, talking about education, when I realized the error in my programming.

I had developed a tendency to measure my worth by accomplishments or how I was progressing professionally and socially when compared with others. In the song Loosie, Thebe Kgositsile reflects,

Found a reason to live, doubt can be in abyss
Keep fallacies off your lips

Sometimes we forget the power of the words we say to others and ourselves.

When we convince ourselves we’re not doing enough, it can draw us down further.

Many commencement speeches mention the importance of taking risks and learning from failure. This is a positive trend, we’re moving away from the prosperity gospel optimism and embracing a world that requires grit. However, something that needs to be clarified is how we define failure.

To me, here are a few things that should not be defined as failure.

Being single.

Getting divorced.

Not owning a home.

Being an addict.

Not having kids.

Not having a lot of money.

You get where this is going, because it’s natural. I find myself doing it too. It wasn’t until recently when I was in a conversation with a friend, talking about education, when I realized my error in programming.

Real success is what is listed on the pre-school diploma that hangs in the hallway of my apartment.

It’s a reminder of how my response to a life that seems to be so complex, should be very simple.

Play, help and care for others, express myself, be conscious of my impact, learn how to be malleable yet strong, stop and listen, not have to rely on someone else to fix my problems.

In many ways, everything I need to know, I’ve already learned.

the case against cynicism

Timely breezes on evening walks, caps of graduates taking flight, a favorite pair of sunglasses making their debut – reasons to smile abound.

I live in a world full of narcissists.

Much of my adult life was dominated by this belief. In recent years, I’ve made amendments.

I live in a world full of narcissists, and I am one of them.

Now, through a lot of prayerful consideration, reading and listening, I’ve changed my tune.

Recently while scrolling through LinkedIn, I saw what seemed like the hundredth post of a graduate sharing how excited they were about finishing their respective degree. These posts are often filled with gratitude and responded to with words of support and admiration. I wasn’t the most positive about them until I saw one from a student who shared they are the first person of color to earn a specific honor he received upon completion of his PhD. I was profoundly moved by his honest reflection and unbridled joy.

What if, all this time, I’ve simply been a cynic?

Social media is now part of how we communicate. We post, we share, we support and at times, we hate.

Cynicism is a disease. It diminishes, erodes and dismisses. It’s not honorable, nor should it be accepted as the way of the intellectual.

Now, narcissism is alive and well but the way to combat it isn’t cynicism, it’s authenticity.

Next time I see someone post about celebrating a degree I’m going to reach out to them and ask them to lunch so I can hear all about their journey, not critique it from the sidelines.

I live in a world, full of people just trying to make something out of this life, and I am one of them.

Reasons to smile abound.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.