We all have words we live by. We read them in novels and hear them in songs. We learn them from our parents, teachers and mentors. The words we live by become our personal mottos. Tattooed over my heart are the words, “If you see it, you are responsible for it.” Like all personal mottos, it is intentionally broad and vague (ie. “treat others as you would like to be treated,” or “Be the change you wish to see in the world” or “Everybody wang-chung tonight”).
I first heard the words that are now emblazoned on my chest when I was 15. I was on a service trip to Haiti and working on various projects for an organization that helped rehabilitate and educate street children of the city of Cap Haitien. Before I landed in Port-au-Prince for the first time, my world was small, safe and comfortable. I had heard of poverty and struggle but had no practical understanding of it. I was, for all intents and purposes, a spoiled white kid. After a few short days in Haiti, I had seen more reality than I could handle. I saw children, orphaned or abandoned by their families, involved in gangs, huffing paint thinner, fighting and killing for a place on the street to sleep…all before age 9. It wasn’t just the things I saw that tore me apart inside; what weighed on me most was knowing that I could do nothing about it. I had seen injustice and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. On the last night of that short trip I voiced this feeling of helplessness to my teacher and mentor, Guy Simonelli. Guy is the sort of man that embodies wisdom, compassion, and masculinity (Think Ernest Hemingway, Pope Francis, and Ron Swanson). I told Guy that I wanted to help those kids on the street. I wanted to make this world a better place. Essentially, I asked him how to change the world. His response was simple. “Conor,” he said, “If you see it, you are responsible for it.” At 15, I took it on myself to adopt that simple phrase as my mantra – my guide to living a purposeful life dedicated to service of others.
For years, those words reminded me that I cannot stand idly by and wait for someone else to come along and do the right thing. It is my responsibility to act on every injustice I see. I didn’t see that responsibility as a burden, but as an opportunity to do better, to be more.
Over ten years later, I still read those words on my chest every morning. But now, something is different. I think overtime, as naivete was replaced with cynicism, I started to ignore my “responsibility.” I began to rationalize my way out of simple actions to do the right thing. I would walk past homeless people in my neighborhood and think, “I should buy him coffee,” only to continue walking and not act on my inclination to do the right thing. I had failed to act so many times that the words on my chest were no longer my mantra to live a purposeful life. The words tattooed over my heart were simply that…words.
I didn’t truly realize that until recently. On Monday morning, I attended a lecture from a man who spent 4 years in the Swiss Guard for Pope John Paul II. His lecture was titled, I Served a Saint. During his impassioned talk about his own life and his relationship with the now-Saint Pope John Paul II, he recounted stories of the humanity and the humility of the Pope. He told the audience about the Popes struggles and determination to serve others. But what stuck with me most was a quote from JP II. It was simple and broad (like most life mottos are). All he said was, “be more.”
Those two words lit a fire in me. They opened my eyes. They made me see how I had fallen short in my mission to live my life in service to others. I realized that I had failed and allowed the words I live by to become just words. Without action, the words that guide me we all for naught. Change can not come from good intentions alone. I saw, then, I have to be more and do more. I have to act and take responsibility for the things I see.
We are all guilty of inaction at some point our lives. We fail to hold the door for someone or pick up trash on the street. We fail to write that thank you note, even though we had all the intentions of doing it. We fail to make that donation to a friends charity 5k even though we “totally meant to”. Good intentions only go so far. We, as a society, can’t rest on our laurels of that “one time I did (insert good deed here).” We need to listen to the good inside us all and act. We will fail along the way, because we always do. But we need to be conscious of our failure and always strive to “be more.”
We all have mottos we live by. Words that guide us through struggles. Words that show us how to treat others. Words that help us make the world a better place. All of our mottos are different, just as our goals in life are different. But if we don’t act and live out our mottos, they will become just words.