When I first read this quotation it seemed like a fundamental truth. And I liked it. In those big moments of life, we need to show up and do great things.
It reminded me of the archetypal pattern of storytelling, the hero’s quest, in which, our hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, does great things, and returns home to great rewards. According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, it is one of the archetypes which transcends culture and is hard-wired in our psyches. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars are based on the hero’s quest. They are epic stories, in which our heros battle monsters and the powers of darkness. These stories resonate and entertain each new generation.
However, the more I pondered on you are, what you do, when it counts, it seemed to me to be misleading. It is implying that we only have to show up and do great things when we spot a big moment, and the rest of the time we don’t have to try. The thing is, each moment in life has the potential to be a big moment. It just might not seem that way, especially if we have a specific expectation of how a big moment in life should look. And since we are embodied, which means we perceive the world through our previous experiences, a big moment to us might not be a big moment to someone else. And vice versa. We could miss doing the great things when it counts, because we weren’t paying attention. Shouldn’t it be you are, what you do, all the time?
Spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson says in A Return to Love , that for many years, she was waiting to be discovered, like 50s film star Lana Turner who was discovered at a drugstore. Williamson says that she was waiting for her life to begin, and that it would only have meaning if it was in the limelight. And then, she realised that she had to give herself permission to be herself and become the star of her own life and live in her own light.
I once asked my husband if he was the star in his own life. He said that no he wasn’t, he only has a walk-on part. We both laughed, because it seemed to be true.
One view could be that he is an unassuming man who hasn’t really had much say over how his life has turned out. Or another view could be that my husband is a hero who heeded a call to action. He gave up a kidney and work, to do dialysis in order to save our daughter’s life. And then, he went back to work and nursed me through cancer. It wasn’t glamorous. It was exhausting, and like all epics, the outcome seemed sometimes to balance on a knife’s edge, but he didn’t give up. He battled the monsters of critical and chronic illness and the dark side – those horrific thoughts that can terrorise us during uncertain times. And he did it without complaint. Afterwards, there was no accolades, no awards ceremonies or anything else that normally make people feel acknowledged and validated, the way people believe that being famous would make them feel.
Civil Rights Leader, Martin Luther King once said: Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.
My husband is truly great. It just wasn’t the story he would have chosen to star in, which is what happens to our heros in the hero’s quest. But star in it my husband did. He behaved heroically and served over and above any call of duty, even though he didn’t always want to. He still says to this day: The glamour never starts.
Service comes in all forms, like in the everyday kindnesses you can perform when you are present and not waiting to shine and be congratulated. The kindnesses that make a difference to someone else’s life and ultimately to yours. For the hero’s quest is the very description of life itself, in life coach Martha Beck’s words: Life is one damn thing after another. We can never know if these damn things are big moments or small ones in our lives or the lives of others. But if we show up for them, then either way we are doing what counts, and we are making meaningful connections with others. Often making connections with others, showing our weaknesses, and worrying if we are enough, takes enormous amounts of courage.
Professor of Sociology, Brene Brown, says that it is only by daring greatly and being vulnerable and showing our weaknesses, that we can live life in a whole hearted way. She says that vulnerability may make us feel ashamed and afraid, but it is the birthplace of creativity and love and all the good things that give our lives meaning and make us feel rich and happy.
And that is ultimately what we are all searching for: the meaning of life, and being rich and happy, which is what happens to every hero at the end of an epic adventure.