The Allure of Responsibility


If we are to live wholehearted, there is another word which matters a great deal, a word that has fallen out of favor in our über- independent, you-should-do-anything-you-can-dream self-talk: responsibility. There are many things I am not responsible for (and it’s important to get those things clear, or we’ll suffocate for sure). As Walker Percy said, “Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him” However, there are some things I alone am responsible for – and it is my great task to see to them. There are few things (though perhaps only a few) worthy of the weight of our life.

There are two boys in my house who have only one fella to call dad, and that’s me. Miska has only one man to whom she has pledged her love and fidelity, and she has received this pledge from only one man in return. These responsibilities have been handed to me, and I gladly received them (though I was so young and mostly ignorant when I said ‘yes’). These responsibilities are mine. They are a trust, a bond, a calling. Whatever jolt of inspiration I might receive, whatever great stirring of wanderlust or new possibilities – if they pull me from these responsibilities, then they are lies.

There are a few words I must write, a few people I must pastor, a circle of friends who I will walk beside, come hell or high water. There is ground I must tend to, a horizon I must walk toward. To abandon any of these would be a wound to me and to those around me.

To insist we must be attentive to the unique contour of our life is not to throw fuel on the narcissism of our age, where we flit from one whim to the next with little regard for the world or our responsibility to it. Here, we have no silly suggestion that our entire life should be one long, uninterrupted string of thrills and chills. Just the opposite, attentiveness to our life helps us to know where we must lay down our life, if our life is what’s called for. Not everything will be worthy of this sacrifice, but some things are. Some things absolutely are.

Kilts and Courage

Of the many ways we could categorize a man, surely this is the most precise: one who can wear a kilt and one who cannot.

I’ve long had fantasies of wearing the Collier tartan, but a man should know his limits so the idea has never gone far. With Miska immersing herself in the Outlander series and with our conversations scheming of how to manage a Scottish walking tour, the moment has been ripe for my Gaelic visions to return. Imagine my delight, then, when I walked up to the counter at the convenience store and there behind the cash register stood a brawny man in a black t-shirt and a green and black plaid kilt. With cropped haircut and bulging, beefy arms, he appeared ready to stroll onto the green to win the Highland Games (the old world games – now televised on ESPN – where kilted men do things like tossing a cow over their shoulder for a hundred yard dash or race to clear a small forest with their teeth and bare hands).

I plopped down my credit card, watching him with a little bit of awe. “I love your kilt, man. I’ve always wanted one, but I don’t think I could pull it off.”

He grinned. “What do you mean? Of course you could.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I have it.”

“Well, here’s what you do. You buy a Comfy Kilt, they’re made for just wearing around the house. Try it on, get the feel of it. Figure out your way to wear the plaid.”

“A Comfy Kilt?” I was intrigued, though this rugged man at the jiffy mart giving me recommendations for lounge wear was not something I could have anticipated.

“You should do it,” he insisted. “You should.”

The fact is that each of us may need to find our version of a Comfy Kilt. If there is something within us to try or to do, we can ease into it, but we must not ignore it. There’s no need to fear being foolish or to give too much concern for how our skill is undeveloped or our courage shaky. Just try it on. Take it for a spin. Dip that toe in the icy water. Maybe we’ll find our own flash of brilliance. Or maybe we’ll shake our head and say, now that was ridiculous. Either way, it simply doesn’t matter.

It seems important for me that one day I buckle up the plaid, though surely (at first, at least) in the safety of my own castle. Almost certainly, the whole experience will be laughable. But then, isn’t laughter its own kind of gift?


Walk Forward

walk_forward_winn_collier_writerIn a culture obsessed with centerfold beauty and youthful vigor, we rarely know what to do with the fading years, the aging bodies. We are tempted to think of a withered frame or declining health as the great tragedy. However, I will tell you the greater tragedy, and it is not a life where the flame has been reduced to flicker. It is a life that never kindled the fire. The deepest sadness is not for the one with their life almost entirely spent, but the one who never really spent their life at all.

Some men live their years as mere shadows of other men. These shadow-men never buckle on their courage or plant two firm feet in a place or with a people they call their own. They never mark out their land. Some women never step into their strength or own their unique beauty. Existing as mere caricatures, they bridle their truest self. Perhaps their strength scares them, perhaps the disapproval of others chains them. I cannot say. I can only say that none of this is true living.

There comes a point in our life, and I think the 40’s is as good a decade as any, when we must decide to walk out from the shadows, to cast off the caricatures. We must be brave. While friendships and brotherhood will come to mean more and more to us, we will rely less and less on others’ opinions. We will live in the fellowship of courageous women and men, giving and receiving, journeying together – but we will not wait for their cues to brandish our gifts and unleash our passions. We see the glory in others, and we speak it. We see the glory in ourselves, and we receive it.

A final word. You can not make such a transition happen. Any pushy attempt at self-made maturity will only yield foolishness: self-importance, braggadocio and a brand of adult-adolescence far too prominent in our day. You can only watch and wait, listening to and learning from those wise ones ahead of you. And then, when your time comes (and here I believe the only wisdom we have is the old truth: you will know it when it arrives), we rise up and say yes. We walk forward.

The Last of the Last

Claude Choules died yesterday. He was 110.

If Claude’s age were not enough to give us pause, this certainly should: Claude was the last known combat veteran* from World War I. In case your history is rusty, that brutal conflict ended in 1918. Yes. 1918.

Claude entered the Queen’s navy when he was only 15. He wanted to be a bugler for the army, but they put him on the seas. In an NPR interview after his biography The Last of the Last came out (he was the oldest first-time published writer), he recounted memories of the Japanese Navy’s surrender. Catch that? Japanese Navy. Oh, by the way, he was a veteran of both World Wars. Of course, he’s the finale of that generation as well.

Not long ago, after several death left him the last man standing, an interviewer asked Claude for his thoughts. “Everything comes to those who wait and wait,” he said.

Claude said he hated war. Noble men do. And he said his family was his richest joy. The picture below was Claude at 100 kneeling beside his wife Ethel, age 97. This was in 2000 as they celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. On these days, I pause and think about my own life, about the life I hope for my sons, about the husband I want to be, about the ideas and convictions that I hold dear.

I know there are courageous women and men in every generation (and I name a number as friends). I know that the older I get the easier it can be to see the world in jaded hues — and the more complicated the notion of bravery and ideals becomes. Still, when men like this pass, I do wonder if there are others to step into the gap.

Rest in peace, Claude.

*Florence Green, 108, is now the lone living remnant we have of the World War I veteran generation. However, Florence was never in combat. So, the combat veterans have crossed the veil. Too soon, we will say farewell to all of this era.

No Time

Last week I turned 39. Of course, my next birthday looms. One (supposed) friend was quick to remind me that I am already in my 40th year and am merely biding time until the digits actually catch up. Miska and I have a tradition twice a year, at both of our birthdays – a quiet dinner out, usually a little upscale with appetizers and dessert to make it lavish (we love to celebrate). We reminisce the year that is passing and speak of our hopes for the year to come.

This is what I want for the year ahead. I want to be boldly present. I want to move more into who I am. I want to live the life my heart longs for. I want to be a strong, engaged presence for Miska and my boys – and for all the people I love.

I don’t have time for anything less. I don’t have time to tone down who I am when I think others don’t want it – or can’t handle it. I dont have time to piddle around with fear, giving it power and allowing it to swell up from the shadows. I don’t have time to spend lingering with regret or selfishness. I don’t have time to couch my words or, as George MacDonald says, “to reason with the dark.” I don’t have time for cynicism or pride or false-humility.

I have something to say. I have things I believe, with all I am. I have people to love. I have a life to live.

But for all that other stuff – I’ve got no time.