I don’t know about you, but I’m in shock that it’s September. Where did the summer go? The season is changing. School is starting, sweaters are on sale, and there are just a few months left of 2011.

It’s a time of transition, and it tends to make us question ourselves. Are we where we hoped we’d be? Are we doing enough for others, being enough?

In August, my husband and I faced multiple stressors:  overwork, fatigue, illness, death, mourning, (minor) injury and car breakdown among them. It was enough to leave me weary…and when I get tired, doubt and discouragement tend to come knocking.

But when they do, I think of something else I witnessed in August, something that trumps that list of stressors. A small breakthrough, something I never thought I’d see.

I’ve written before about my brother’s gift for music, how his piano lessons have inspired me in my own creative work. But last month he did something that inspired my courage, too.

Me and my brother, just after his ‘Happy Birthday’ performance triumph.

My family and I were gathered at the home of some close friends, celebrating their son’s second birthday. Willie was with us at the party, but he kept to himself, watching his DVD player. He likes to see our friends, but he prefers quiet to socializing. I checked in with him a few times, to keep him company and to make sure that he wasn’t feeling agitated or overwhelmed. He was relaxed and calm, and I felt relieved.

Then, when it was time for dessert, he came in to the living room where we were gathered. My parents had called him in and asked if he’d like to play a song on our friends’ piano. But I felt myself tense up; would he feel thrown by the unexpected request? What if he made a mistake? He’s a perfectionist; one wrong note could be a disaster. What if he threw a tantrum and broke the piano? (There’s precedent.)

But he didn’t. He played well, and we all applauded. Yet still, I couldn’t relax. Would the loud noise of the applause irritate him? Would the attention bother him?

Then, as the birthday boy was about to make his entrance, my mom said, “Willie! How about if you play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the piano while we sing?”

As you can imagine, I was tense beyond all reason by this point. But Willie was not. He was in his element. He played ‘Happy Birthday’ with stateliness and pride, and, though he jumped off the piano bench as soon as he was done, I could tell that he was pleased.

I’d underestimated him. True, he’s struggled with noise and attention and perfectionism in the past. (Frankly, so have I.) But in that moment, he showed me:  he’d grown. He’d changed. My parents had allowed him the dignity of risk, and he’d been up to the challenge. And I had tears in my eyes.

Yes, he still struggles with (regular) outbursts. But he’s far from where he was a few years ago, when I was afraid to be in the same room with him. When he couldn’t stop himself from hurting us. When he was in so much pain that every day was a torment.

There was a time not so long ago when I thought I’d lost my brother, when I thought I’d never be able to feel safe with him, much less proud of him. As such, watching him play the piano at the party felt like a miracle to me.

It also reminded me that our smallest actions, when done with love, have the power to liberate others. To literally set them free from their doubts and help them to believe.

But how to get there?

As Brene Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Overcoming self-doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we’re supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves.”

Here’s the thing, though:  that can’t be done in a vacuum. We have to do it in the context of relationship. It’s too hard to let go of ‘not being enough’ if we don’t have someone, somewhere, who believes we are enough. Who has believed in us when we didn’t have the strength to believe in ourselves.

Willie has started believing in himself because my parents have never given up on him. In turn, I’ve started believing in myself more because of the amazing comments and encouragements I’ve received from you. Though we may never have met, you have helped me to be braver, to be stronger, to write when I feel empty, to hope when I feel like giving up.

So even when you are down– even when you are sad– encourage someone else. Pay it forward before it feels like it’s even there. I promise, it will come back to you.

If you’re not at a place to offer encouragement right now, that’s okay. Resolve instead to ask a loved one for help. Offer compassion to yourself as you’re struggling. (As Liz Gilbert wisely wrote, “To thine own self be very, very kind.”)

Wherever you’re at, set an intention to set an example. Act with kindness when someone else is being rude. Share your strength with someone who is weak. Tell the truth when you’re tempted to hide. Just as Willie’s playing gives me courage, your act of bravery may make an essential difference to someone else.

Who knows? The life you change just might be your own.

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  1. Harriet Cabelly September 5, 2011 at 2:36 PM - Reply

    Wow, such a beautiful piece. It brought tears to my eyes.
    And thank you for linking to my posting.
    It’s those small chances that, if we can appreciate (as you do) and really take in, can truly enrich our lives. So many of us take so much for granted. When we hone in on those small changes, we see miracles do happen and we are uplifted by them. That’s when change in our attitudes and perspective start to occur.
    He’s a lucky guy to have as his sister!

    • Caroline McGraw September 5, 2011 at 2:45 PM - Reply

      Thank you Harriet! I really appreciate your comment, and it was my pleasure to link to your post. It’s so good to connect with another writer & coach who can relate to the joys and challenges of loving someone with special needs. Your piece about your daughter’s transition continues to inspire me!

  2. VPKeefe September 5, 2011 at 3:39 PM - Reply

    WOW! Caroline – what you wrote is just what I needed! We went through such a set back recently… I felt sad and discouraged. Reading your post is encouraging me to think of the positive. Thank you.

    • Caroline McGraw September 5, 2011 at 3:49 PM - Reply

      🙂 So glad to hear it, Veronique! I’ll keep you and the setback in prayer ~ hope things continue to look up! (hug)

  3. Olga Jendrek September 5, 2011 at 3:52 PM - Reply

    I was down and I had just read a page from a devotional your Mom had given me for our 30th anniversary and it helped me. But then I went to the computer and saw that I had an e-mail from you and read that too. How happy to see the picture from Finn’s birthday party and to read about your brothers very special part at the celebration. I was so happy when Willie played “Happy Birthday”. It was truly a special treat and I never thought of the concerns you might have. I am glad that none of them happened and it all turned out to be truly a blessing for all.
    Aunt Olga

    • Caroline McGraw September 5, 2011 at 6:51 PM - Reply

      Aunt Olga, thank you so much! I’m thrilled to hear that this post came at an opportune time for you. Willie’s playing was, indeed, a gift to us all.
      Thank you for your constant love & support; it means the world to me. It was great to see you at the party, too 🙂

  4. Greg Lease September 5, 2011 at 6:15 PM - Reply

    Wonderful post Caroline! What a clear picture of how the fear of being “not enough” (whether about ourselves or for someone we love) can cripple our ability to allow the loving risk to be present. It’s only by risking that love finds its true expression and the fear of being “not enough” is vanquished.

  5. Sandra McGraw September 6, 2011 at 1:32 AM - Reply

    I am happy to hear that Willie is doing so well….Congratulations to him on his progress and to you on the completion of your book!!!!

  6. Tara September 7, 2011 at 12:09 PM - Reply

    We have to do it in the context of relationship. It’s too hard to let go of ‘not being enough’ if we don’t have someone, somewhere, who believes we are enough. Who has believed in us when we didn’t have the strength to believe in ourselves.

    These three very wise lines speak volumes to me. I am so very thankful for my husband and daughter who, through their belief and unconditional love, have shown me that I am enough – just the way I am.

    A beautiful post, Caroline. And many thanks to Willie for allowing you to share his story.

    • Caroline McGraw September 7, 2011 at 2:12 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Tara! Those are my favorite lines as well.
      Blessings to you and your family, my friend.

  7. Allison September 8, 2011 at 8:12 PM - Reply

    What a victory for Willie, and for your relationship! I’m so happy to read this my dear.

    I love this:
    “It also reminded me that our smallest actions, when done with love, have the power to liberate others. To literally set them free from their doubts and help them to believe.”

    How beautifully put, and how wonderfully true! I have been so inspired by so many people in the last few months-by things they’ve done and in ways they’ve been brave, and in turn, it’s helped me to keep my faith alive. How wonderful that we can encourage each other in this way!

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful song by Caitlyn Smith-I’m clinging to this beautiful line:
    “What I thought would destroy me leaves me stronger in its wake.”

    • Caroline McGraw September 9, 2011 at 5:58 PM - Reply

      What a victory indeed. 🙂
      Thank you so much Alli ~ you who have been inspired have been an amazing inspiration yourself; I thought of you when I heard the song. You’re living the truth of it.
      I love you too.

  8. Tiffany Lekas October 5, 2011 at 1:17 AM - Reply

    I love this Cari! The song is beautiful. How true it is. I feel like doubt and discouragement come most often when we are going through change whether positive or negative. Thank you.

    • Caroline McGraw October 5, 2011 at 2:36 PM - Reply

      Thank you Tiffany! Times of transition are fertile ground for doubt & discouragement, as well as real growth. 🙂

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