On being ... more than words

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week a political leader -- Jack Layton -- died of cancer at the young age of 61. Jack, as most people referred to him, was the leader of the newly-elected opposition party. Everyone knew Jack had been treated for prostate cancer in 2010, but this past spring he energetically campaigned and won a historic victory. (Jack’s party is relatively new and it has never been the official opposition.)

But, in July, less than two months after the election, looking remarkably frail, Jack announced that because of a reoccurrence of cancer he was temporarily stepping aside. There was little news after that, until the week before his death when I read that he was still planning on being at the September 19th opening of Parliament.

Then, with no warning, last Monday morning came the news of his death. Though I did not vote for Jack’s party, I was saddened by the news, as I thought his leading the opposition would be a good thing.

By mid-morning on Monday there was news about Jack’s “open letter to Canadians”, which he had worked on with his wife (who is also a member of Parliament) and his chief of staff over the weekend before he died. The first report I heard about the letter described his political recommendations regarding his party’s leadership and his comments to others fighting cancer, urging them not to be discouraged because his journey did not go as hoped. But perhaps the most quoted part of the letter was his closing comment to us all:

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

By the time the letter was published in the paper, I had heard quite a lot about various themes, but I was interested in reading it for myself. When I finally did, like many, I was moved by the message. But, more than that, I was overwhelmed by the sheer positivity of the words he used. The editor in me immediately picked up a red pen and I began underlining the upbeat words. Here’s just a sample:

thoughtful, inspiring, beautiful, spirit, love, renew, optimistic, focused, future, privileged, grateful, confidence, support, commitment, energy, determination, proud, justice, universal, continue, forward, beloved, always, highlight, seamless, solidarity, better, partnership, right, succeed, superb, remarkable, hope, great, inspiration, dreams, ideas, change, engaging, trust, belief, power, world, inclusive, generous, believe, vision, passion, heart, plans, present, hopes, can, equality, opportunity, build, prosperous, benefits, fairly, offer, save, restore, choices, matters, working, compelling, new, impressive, committed, team, careful, alternatives, equal, together, and friends

Can you believe all those powerful words (the list above has 75, with no repeats) in one letter that was just under 1000 words? For someone like me, who believes that the words we use help shape our reality, I can’t help feel that he must have been a remarkably positive person – the kind of person the world (not to mention the political sphere) could use more of.

And, finally, at his funeral the minister mentioned one other quote from Jack that really struck me and helped me understand that Jack’s vocabulary was really a verbal manifestation of his approach to living. The minister explained that Jack didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, but he knew Jack was spiritual, for Jack once told him, “… I believe how I live my life everyday is my act of worship.” No wonder his choice of words…

I know that to some, this column might sound like just another tribute to a political leader on his passing, but it’s not about that. This column is to say thank you to Jack for reminding me of the ability words have to lift us up and for making me want to try harder to suffuse my own writing and conversations with more words from Jack’s vocabulary.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


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