This is going to start with a story about Karen, and I will warn you: it is a sad one. I have no doubt that I will cry as I write it.
Karen and I grew up next door to each other. Our birthdays were 3 weeks apart. We were never best friends, however spent many childhood days playing together. Her parents still live next to mine. And yet, despite many similarities, our paths, as you will see, took us in very different directions.
For some reason unknown to me, Karen was not a happy child, and I am the first to admit that there was something different about her. I remember sometimes wanting to avoid her to play with my other friends. I remember how she never seemed to feel like she fit in anywhere. I remember that she was teased. And I remember that I was very afraid that one day people would notice that I was just like her – and start to tease me, too.
By the time we were hitting our teenage years, our paths had begun to truly diverge. I spent my time and energy on my desire to be popular, and obsessing over my love of soccer, downhill skiing, and all of those things I thought were “cool”. During those same years, Karen began with substance abuse, running away, and starting to hurt herself. As time passed, she stole, got in trouble with the police, was in and out of group homes, attempted suicide, and eventually got into prostitution.
Despite outward appearances, there was something in me that still believed that she and I were not truly different. While the lives we were living were polar opposites, we still kept in touch regularly. I still have boxes of letters she wrote me from group homes across Canada. And probably some from times when she lived on the streets.
The last time I saw Karen, we were both 18. I had just graduated from high school with honours, about to embark on my university career, and she had just run away from her Montreal pimp. I remember the phone call when she called for me to meet her, and I remember when I did, that I tried to convince her not to go back. But I don’t remember the meeting itself.
A few weeks later, the newspapers shouted the sensational headlines about a Nova Scotia Prostitute Murdered in Montreal. It was Karen.
I think a part of me always knew that her ending would not likely be a happy one. However, I was in shock, I was sad. And it made me mad. She was not “just some hooker killed by an angry pimp.” She was a human being. She was my childhood neighbour. And she was my friend. She had a family who loved her. She had talents, dreams, and wishes.
I have not yet – almost 20 (!!) years later – gone back to read her letters. But I can tell you what was in them. She wrote me beautiful poetry. She told me that I was a good person and a good friend. She told me her wishes and dreams. She told me that she knew that I would be a great success in my life. She told me that I would help people. And that I would help to change a lot of people’s lives.
Even writing this, I am sad to admit how many times I have questioned myself and my ability to do just those things. And yet, a troubled – perceptive – teenager showed me exactly what I need to remember every day: to believe in myself and trust that I can make a difference. She showed me that there is magnificence in every person if you just take the time to trust that it is there. It does not surprise me that one of my highest values is magnificence: bringing out the best in every person, including myself.
The funny thing that led to me writing this story today is that I was given a task by two dear friends and colleagues: Dr. Andrea Ryan, and Dr. Karen Osburn. We participate in an accountability call each week, which has quickly become one of my most inspirational and supportive practices. And this week, due to a conflict in my schedule, we had to cancel our call – and decided that each of us would write a blog about accountability. Now, the challenge for me is this: I don’t plan out what topic I will write about in my twice-weekly blogs. I simply set out the time to write, and then put to words the thoughts I have. And this morning, driving to work, I thought about Karen.
You see, the definition of accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility and to account for one’s actions.
I didn’t know at first how Karen’s story related to this. But I think it simply is this: I accept responsiblity for wanting to live up to a friend who believed in me. And I choose to take massive action daily to help more people see that inside, we are all truly no different. I am forever committed to seeing the magnificence in people and teaching our children to do the same: to not judge a book by its cover, but to find the beauty that lies within.
You see, Karen was not the traditional picture of beauty. She made herself look hard, angry and unapproachable. The headlines about her death were sensational, without acknowledging that a troubled young woman had passed, and that perhaps she would be missed. Sometimes people look only at the surface, and forget that everything that is most essential and beautiful in life cannot be touched or seen.
Sometimes people forget that we are all magnificent.
As for me, I am quite certain that I will not be guilty of that. I have Karen to thank for showing me that under a hard surface can lie a huge heart, a childlike mind, and the simple human need to love and be loved.
I have many things in my life that help keep me accountable – my family, my children, my practice, my friends. But most of all, it is a drive to help make this world a better place. For now and forever. And it is no mistake in my mind that my best way of doing this is to honour Karen’s memory, believe in myself, believe that I can help change the world by being a good person and a good friend, and to help people every day remember that they, too, are simply magnificent.