Turn Your Excuses Into Action : The “Do What You Can” Guide

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A lot of people live in perpetual dissatisfaction with the state of the world.

They feel that virtues like integrity and courage are in short supply, that politics is an embarrassing circus, and that society is getting worse rather than better. And they feel powerless to do anything about it.

They say they’re too young or busy to accomplish anything important, or that they don’t have any gifts or talents to contribute, or that nothing they could do would make a difference anyway.

One man, a boy really, is uniquely suited to squash the ultimately empty excuses we all give for not taking action: Jacques Lusseyran, a little known hero of the French Resistance movement during World War II.

At the age of eight, Lusseyran lost his sight when he fell into the corner of a teacher’s desk at school, and one of the arms of his eyeglasses tore into his right eye. His left eye then suffered from “sympathetic inflammation,” and both were left completely blind.

In 1941, when he was just sixteen years old, Lusseyran created Volontaires de la Liberté — the Volunteers of Liberty — and recruited 600 of his peers into the French Resistance movement. With the Germans occupying the city of Paris where he lived, and censoring the news coming into France, he and his compatriots began publishing and distributing a bi-weekly underground news bulletin. The Volunteers of Liberty then joined with another, larger Resistance group, Défense de la France (Defense of France).

Even when he was eventually arrested and held at the Buchenwald concentration camp, Lusseyran continued to resist the Germans and aid his fellow men — starting yet another covert news organization in order to build morale and encourage the hopes of his fellow prisoners.

So, inspired by the life of Jacques, I will list, one by one, the excuses that people commonly express while giving the principles of action by which these excuses should be replaced.

Excuse n° 1 : I have an idea but I’m not sure yet how to execute it

When Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, called upon his countrymen to continue to morally and physically resist the German occupation, Jacques knew “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that he wanted to fight for the “things in our heads and our hearts we called freedom.” Blind in both eyes, Lusseyran knew he couldn’t become a soldier or take up arms, and wasn’t sure exactly when and how he could contribute to the Resistance movement. But he felt sure he’d find a way to do something. As he told a friend: “I am going to make war. I don’t know how, but I shall make it.”

Jacques first announced to his two best friends his desire to resist the occupation. He then contacted ten other people, just giving them a few details of what he thought he was doing. They all encouraged him to move forward on the idea and he felt a little panicked under the pressure: “What action was I capable of, blind as I was? Yet it was from me that they all expected. ”

So he took another step, calling a preliminary meeting. He expected that just the twelve friends he had contacted would come. Instead, fifty-two of his classmates showed up.

They gathered around Jacques and fell silent. All eyes were on him. At that moment, Lusseyran remembered, “an unaccustomed radiance filled my head, and my heart stopped beating out of rhythm. All at once I began to understand everything I had been seeking and not finding over the past weeks.”

His words came to him as he spoke. He talked to his new comrades of what it meant to be joining the resistance movement, of the need for absolute secrecy and silence, and how they would start out slow for the next 6 months, building small cells of resistors one at a time.

By simply opening his mouth, the 16-year-old had set the wheels in motion. There was no turning back, even if he still didn’t know exactly how to proceed and what lay ahead. Being an underground movement, “there could be no question of getting expert advice, not from politicians, officers, newspaper men, or even from our parents.” The young men would have to figure it all out on their own.

The movement took shape as Lusseyran acted, and would never have gotten off the ground if he had tried to work out all the details before getting started.

Principle 1: You don’t need a perfect plan to start taking action. Take a first step based on what you know and plans will emerge as you act.

Excuse n° 2 : I don’t have any gifts/talents/abilities that would be useful

When Jacques lost his sight as a boy, he found that his other senses became keenly sharpened, or as he put it, it wasn’t so much that his senses were heightened, as he simply started “making better use of them.” His sense of smell became animal-like, to the point where he could detect people’s confidence or stress simply by scent. And his sense of touch became so superhumanly sensitive, that as well shall see, it completely altered his view of the created universe.

Sound became a particularly important source of information for him, and he was astonished at how much he had missed before he had lost his sight :

“Even before my accident, I loved sound, but now it seems clear that I didn’t listen to it…

It was as though the sounds of earlier days were only half real, too far away from me, and heard through a fog…my accident had thrown my head against the humming heart of things, and the heart never stopped beating.”

Jacques proactively worked to hone his hearing, joying in the thousand little nuances he learned to discover in what had previously been mere noise. He could use the sound of creaking floorboards to gauge the dimensions of a room. He could tell where there was a recess in a wall or a crack in a window, and whether a door had been pushed by a human hand or the wind. If a draft moved a stationary object just a tiny fraction, he could hear “its friction in the air, as light a sound as the sound of a waving hand.”

Lusseyran further learned to read people’s “voices like a book.” He found that if he let the voices inside of him, allowing them to truly vibrate in his head and chest, they would unerringly reveal the character of the person before him. “There was a moral music,” he observed. “Our appetites, our humors, our secret vices, even our best-guarded thoughts were translated into our voices.” Lusseyran discovered that a person’s words and voice could say two different things, and it was always the voice that never deceived.

Put all together, while Lusseyran’s blindness was a handicap in one way, it also developed within him a kind of “seeing eye” — a penetrating intuition about people and his environment.

If Jacques had only focused on the skills of a sighted person, he would not have taken advantage of all those skills developed by being blind.

Principle 2: You might think that you have no talent, but this is probably because you are focusing on visible or known qualities. Each of us has something within us that we can develop by changing the rules of the game.

Excuse n° 3 : I’m Too Young

When Jacques started the Volunteers for Freedom, he was only 16 years old. However, if the youth of the group did not simplify all their operations, it made some of them possible.

“Young as we were, we could easily go all over, pretend to be playing games, or making foolish talk, wander around whistling with our hands in our pockets outside factories or German convoys, hang about kitchens and on sidewalks, climb over walls. Everything would be on our side…

The Volunteers of Liberty were going to build an information network, not an organization of professional agents but something better, an organization of agents dedicated and nearly invisible because they looked like harmless youngsters.”

Being part of the resistance was incredibly dangerous and required putting one’s life at stake. Jacques observed that most of them were under 30 years old. As for men over 30, they were much more reluctant.

“The men over thirty round about us were afraid: for their wives and their children — these were real reasons; but also for their possessions, their position, and that is what made us angry; above all for their lives, which they clung to much more than we did to ours. We were less frightened than they were.”

This youth also allowed them to savor the dangers and difficulties: “Even in the difficulties of life, we have found the joy of living which has given us strength,” he declared. At this age, we are full of passion and courage: two crucial elements that adults lack in overcoming the fear of risk.

Principle 3: A difference can be made at any age and often youth is not a weakness for a cause, but rather a strength.

Excuse 4 : I’m too busy

While acting as a leader of the French resistance movement, Jacques was also a full-time student, first in high school and then at university. He had two passions and goals during this time: to fight the Nazis and to be admitted to the École normale supérieure — an elite institution of higher education which had an extremely competitive selection process.

Lusseyran worked hard to manage both tasks well, even though it meant going absolutely full steam for two years :

“I had made it a point of honor to set up a balance between my two lives, the public and the secret. My days oscillated between studies and action at a frightening pace. In the morning between four o’clock and seven, I walked through books two or three steps at a time. From eight to noon I listened to the teachers, took frenzied notes and tried to absorb knowledge as fast as it was given out. In the afternoon, from two to four, I was still in class. Then at four o’clock the Resistance began.

There were trips across Paris by routes set up in advance for greater safety, meetings, surveys, judgments, discussions, orders to be given, worries, putting the doubting ones back on the road, supervision of founding groups, calls for coolness to those who thought the Resistance was like a detective story, deliberation over the articles for the bulletin, sifting of news, time lost in the kind of summons which could be made neither by letter because of censorship nor by telephone because of lines tapped. By this time it was already eleven o’clock at night, and I believe I only stopped because of the curfew.

Alone in my room at last, I immersed myself in my studies again, and kept on learning until my fingers grew stiff in the pages of Braille. Since my interest in life and my confidence in it were boundless, everything seemed to me as significant the tenth time I encountered it as it had the first. And that gave me an enthusiasm which enabled me to go through fatigue without feeling it.”

So you can’t pretend you’re busy just to not accomplish something that is important to you.

Principle 4: If it’s really important to you, you’ll find the time to do it.

[…]

One of the overarching convictions that motivated Jacques Lusseyran to become a Resistance leader despite his age and his blindness, to fight for freedom, and to help others survive Buchenwald, was formed in his youth in the months after he lost his sight.

It was a time in which he was learning to use his other senses on another level.

Forced to know the world tactilely, he made a most surprising discovery: the inanimate world was neither dead nor inert. Even stones, he attests, have a kind of vibration. What’s more, his fingers seemed to have a vibration of their own. And the more he harmonized these respective vibrations, the easier and quicker he could recognize an object. The discovery of these vibrations radically altered the way Lusseyran viewed created matter, and transformed the way he approached life :

“Being blind I thought I should have to go out to meet things, but I found that they came to meet me instead. I have never had to go more than halfway, and the universe became the accomplice of all my wishes.”

If making a difference only involves progressing halfway towards our vision and goals, what excuse could we have for not taking action?

Notes

Source : And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran

NB : This article is a partial reprint of an article  by Brett and Kate McKay.

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