This is a story about a time when I fell flat on my face. Metaphorically, I mean. And I don’t know about you, but that’s a big fear of mine. Preparing and trying to do my best, and instead…completely blowing it.

When L’Arche DC celebrated its 25th anniversary birthday, I volunteered to give a speech with Leo at the Saturday evening banquet. I was his accompanier, and L’Arche DC’s 25th anniversary was more Leo’s celebration than anyone’s. As the community’s founding member, it was a milestone for him.

Me and Leo, giving the L’Arche DC 25th anniversary speech!

So Leo and I practiced in an interview format, as though I was Barbara Walters and he was a major political figurehead. We rehearsed a series of questions: “Leo, what do you like about L’Arche? What have you learned about yourself in L’Arche? What have you learned about God at L’Arche?” And Leo would respond at length. Yet as the appointed day drew near, someone mentioned Leo’s fear of public speaking, and I felt a quiver of apprehension. But I thought, “Sure, he’s scared to say what’s wrong with him when we go to the doctor, but since he agreed to this, he actually wants to do it.” Right?

Wrong. Very, very wrong. I’d forgotten that Leo’s a people-pleaser. (Perhaps I’d forgotten because I am similarly afflicted.) The person who asked him to do the speech was his first accompanier, and the 25th anniversary was her pet project. How could he say no to her? He couldn’t. That’s how Leo and I ended up on stage, with me introducing us, and him…not speaking. I held the microphone, repeating, “I’m Caroline, and this is…”

He was supposed to chime in with his name, like we’d practiced. But he just stood there shaking his head. A blush was rising on his cheeks. I looked at him pleadingly, my eyes begging, “Say your name, Leo!” and his eyes, when they met mine for an instant, begging right back, “Please don’t make me!” We were standing in front of about 200 people, and I had no Plan B. I looked out over the crowd of expectant faces. You have to do something, I told myself sternly.

Fortunately, a sense that I had to save the day wasn’t all that rushed over me at that moment. In the span of seconds, I saw Leo and I saw myself, both so scared, both trying so hard to get it right. And it was compassion for both of us that led me to say, “Well, this fine man next to me is Leo, the founding member of the L’Arche DC community, and it’s his anniversary too!”

I waited for the applause and laughter to die down, and then I said, “Leo, how about if I share what we’ve talked about together? Would that be all right with you?” He managed a nod. His face was looking better. He still wanted to bolt, I could tell, but it seemed like he might actually make it through the speech if I made it quick.

So I told the crowd about our conversations, and how Leo is the resident historian of our unique community. I shared how he’s learned to speak up for himself; how before he came to L’Arche he let people push him around; how he’s learned that you can be both assertive and kind. Leo started chiming in here and there, correcting a misremembered phrase with his exact words. I didn’t mind being corrected; I was so relieved that he was actually speaking. And when I came to the last point, there was a lump in my throat.

I said, “When I ask Leo about God, he looks at me like he’s a college professor and I’m a kindergartner asking silly questions. He says, ‘God? God is everywhere.’ And I love how Leo opens my eyes. I love being a part of the community he helped to found. I love how I’m starting to see because I’m starting to love.”

I swallowed and said, “Thank you.” Leo said, “Thank you.” I was so proud of him. We took our seats to loud applause. I wanted to reach over and hug Leo, but instead I put my hand on his shoulder. “We did it!” I said, “Well done.” And he nodded, just once, in acquiescence and affirmation.


At my farewell celebration last week, I felt like I felt years ago as I stepped away from that podium with Leo:  embarrassed, amazed, and awestruck by how woefully underqualified we all are for the important tasks life has for us. Being a program director, giving a speech, loving one another…who are we to do any of it?

But still, we have said yes. And that yes, that attempt– even if it precedes fumbling and failure– is a beautiful thing to witness.

That speech with Leo was an outtake of sorts, yet it’s a moment I cherish today. Because truly, life isn’t about being flawless. This is a tough realization for an overachiever, who has too often made the mistake of avoiding failure at all costs. From the perspective of years, though, it doesn’t matter whether or not Leo and I gave a polished speech that day. In the same way, it will not matter years from now whether or not I turned in ‘perfect’ quarterly reports as a program director (though I definitely tried to do so)!

It was never about any of that. Life — real life– is about whether or not we show up for one another. It’s about whether or not we try, in the midst of our own frailty, to offer the best of ourselves to one another. Real, lasting success isn’t about not making mistakes. True success is about love. It’s about touching the life of another human being.

It’s the same epiphany I had when I looked across that stage and thought, “You know what? I bet the only reason Leo hasn’t bolted– the only reason he’s still up here at all– is because we care about each other.” And once I had that thought in mind, I held my head up high.


Who (or what) has kept you going in this season? Tell me in the comments!

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  1. Harriet Cabelly November 21, 2011 at 2:11 PM - Reply

    Hi Caroline,
    Another gorgeous piece. As you write, it’s certainly about touching the life of another person. And Leo stood up there with you because you touched his life and impacted it in a most visceral way that you’ll never really know. Those are the unspeakable ways that cannot be articulated but can only be felt deeply.
    Right now I am going through some deep hurt and sadness as my close friend of 40 years has just shut the door to our friendship because I fell short of ‘showing up’ for her. She gave me her book to read and it sat on my table for one year without my reading it. My actions (or lack of) caused her hurt and pain. I only wished she would’ve ranted and raved to me mid-way through the year to tell me how I’m hurting her by not reading it before it got to this boiling point of exploding into nothingness.
    We need to tell one another what hurts and angers us along the way before it hits the point of no return.
    Thank you for the beautiful video.

    • Caroline McGraw November 21, 2011 at 9:49 PM - Reply

      Harriet, thank you so much! As you say, it’s tough to articulate our deepest, most visceral knowings (or the ways in which others impact us), but moments like that help me to know them in a way beyond words.
      Thank you for sharing your own story; my heart goes out to you & your friend.

  2. Rache November 21, 2011 at 3:09 PM - Reply


  3. Brooke (Books Distilled) November 21, 2011 at 7:04 PM - Reply

    Thanks for the shoutout, honey! I loved your story.

  4. Tara November 21, 2011 at 9:18 PM - Reply

    Compassion can be such a lifesaver when things veer off track… which, because we are human, is frequently.

    Showing up, even with our frailties, and trying to offer our best is success, and I thank you for the reminder. As Don Miguel Ruiz says in The Four Agreements, our best changes from day to day depending on the circumstances. Knowing that, we can be gentle with ourselves and still strive for improvement. No need to go for perfection.

    Thank you for touching my heart with this post. Happy holiday to you and yours.

    • Caroline McGraw November 21, 2011 at 9:51 PM - Reply

      What a great quote ~ & I’ve been wanting to read The Four Agreements, too. How true it is. 🙂 Happy Holidays to you, Tara!

  5. Metod November 22, 2011 at 1:54 AM - Reply

    What a beautiful post Caroline. Thank you for sharing.
    As I’m getting older I also truly believe that including love
    and our heart in anything we do brings success and happiness,
    even with some mistakes along the way. As you write,
    important is to touch the life of another human being.
    People might forget what we say, but they never forget
    how we made them feel.
    By the way, I like the new look of your site, including that
    nice rays of sun. It’s very elegant and inviting.
    Wishing happy Holidays 🙂

    • Caroline McGraw November 22, 2011 at 2:22 PM - Reply

      Thank you Metod! I appreciate the affirmation, on both the piece and the site aesthetic. A very happy holiday to you and yours!

  6. Tanya November 22, 2011 at 5:21 AM - Reply

    all i can say is i needed to read this…and right now I’m scared of failing but thank you for reminding me that i am not alone in making mistakes, that there is room for grace, that God goes before me, and that the most important thing is that I would continue to love and touch lives…we should be focused on His ability, instead of our inabilities, but we often limit His grace and power because we let our fear and insecurity govern our actions and prevent us from walking into the unknown, where failure may meet us…but what a loss it is when our immobility prevents us from walking forward into the beautiful potential for HOPE, JOY, COMPASSION, SURRENDER, PERSEVERANCE…AWE.

    • Caroline McGraw November 22, 2011 at 2:24 PM - Reply

      Tanya, I’m so glad the post could meet you where you are, and offer encouragement along the way. Here’s to you “walking forward into [your] beautiful potential…” 🙂

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