A Portrait of Dad

Today’s is my father’s 8oth birthday!  It can be hard to put into words the legacy of a person.  I wrote this poem as an attempt to capture what he means to our family.

A Portrait of Dad
For David Berns

A baby in his arms, a child on a knee,
His favorite place is with family.
Whether at work or play or song,
In his fold, we want to belong.

Toys, pranks, and jokes at play,
A kid at heart, he will always stay.
Never too silly, a little bit ornery,
On his team, we want to be.

Others give him what went wrong,
So he can fix it firm and strong.
To watch him work tool in hand,
By his side, we want to stand.

Hands deep in soil to plant a seed,
Feet quick to neighbors still in need.
Harvest to others he will bestow,
Amid his love, we want to grow.

A gentle spirit lights his face,
Peacemaker, extravagant in grace.
Roots of wisdom in our family tree,
Through his eyes, we want to see.

Tenderly he carries a share of sorrow,
Assured God holds our every tomorrow.
What once was lost, we soon will receive,
As his faith, we want to believe.

A breath of prayer from the start,
Praise from his lips and joy in his heart.
A faith in God will he simply bring,
In his harmony, we want to sing.

Secure in Christ’s victory foretold,
With faithful hope, he lets life unfold.
His trust in God will never hollow,
So in his steps, we want to follow.

Nancy Berns
December 27, 2015
Happy Birthday Dad!!!






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Secret Problems Take a Toll

Is this you sometimes?

You hold it all together until the last person is out of the house and then you break down crying.   Life is too hard.   You think, “How can everyone else be doing so well but I am failing? What is wrong with me?”

Or you get ready for work and show up determined to have a good day. Your annoying colleague punches all the wrong buttons and you slump at your desk the rest of the day unable to really focus. You snap at others. You wonder why everyone else is successful while you are struggling.

Or you put on a brave smile and find the energy to get your kids ready for school.   You drop them off at school and then find all your energy goes with them as they skip to their classroom. You think, “How does everyone else stay so focused and happy? Why am I so alone?”

Here’s the deal.   You are not alone.   People all around you think these thoughts and feel like giving up.   Others that smile at you in public later go home and sit in a chair to cry. Or go back to bed.   Or yell at others.

Life can be hard.   We may be grieving for loved ones who died. We may be struggling in a marriage. We may be missing children who are off doing their own things. We may be torn by hurtful comments from people we thought were friends. We may be facing a serious illness.   We may be worried about family members who are destroying their lives. We may be struggling to be patient with work colleagues who make lives miserable and there is nothing to be done about it.

The list goes on.   No wonder we get down.

We cannot avoid having trials in life. What we can do is learn to reach out to at least one other person so we do not feel so alone.

When we keep our pain and grief tapped down, it will seep out the cracks in ways we don’t always recognize. It helps to have a friend or support person who will listen.   You don’t need everyone to understand, but one person listening can do wonders.

When we feel shame or guilt, it helps to share thoughts with another person. Keeping our shame and doubts hidden only allows them to grow. By voicing those thoughts or asking questions about why you are the only one struggling, you can get them into the light of day and realize that they are less powerful when not hidden in the dark.   When you have the right person to share those struggles, you often learn that he or she also has trials.   We connect and realize that we are not the only ones hurting.   This person may be a friend, family member, clergy member, counselor, co-worker, or support group person.

Finding a good person to confide in can be hard.   Please keep trying.   Be willing to show some vulnerability to others. You may be surprised to learn that they too need a friend. And if you try reaching out to people only to be hurt by them, understand they may be hurting even deeper than you and not able to connect at that level. Protect yourself from them in the future, but don’t give up on humanity.

Reach out to people in person and not just on social media.  You might also connect with people through helping others in difficult situations.  You don’t even need to share your specific struggles.  By helping others, we can feel better about our situations.

Connecting with others will not magically take away all your problems.  They are small steps.  They are moments to help us catch our breath.   And even though it is hard to believe, those people next to you who seem so confident and happy need others too.   They also have doubts and trials.

You are not alone.   And you have gifts and support to share with others too.  Take a chance and reach out to others.




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Living Life while Facing Death

Daniel greatly admired his wife.    He described her as a wonderful role model for people.  She modeled how to live life and how to face death.

Daniel said his wife wanted to capture life and keep living even as she faced cancer.   After several years of living with cancer and enduring many medical procedures, they discovered her treatment options were running out.

In August, Helen and Daniel knew she would die before Christmas.  They needed to tell their children.  Helen wanted to drive to their colleges rather than make a phone call.   And as typical of Helen, she wanted to combine fun in this trip—a trip that centered around informing her son she was dying.   “You have to live,” she would say.

Daniel recalls the trip to see their son.   “So we drove down to Arkansas, where Brian was, to tell him she’s dying.  And then we go on a 14 mile canoe trip.  It was just a day trip. I mean, everything was great. Everything went fine. Sort of.  We get in the canoe and we promptly fall out.”

Daniel said they all laughed.

Daniel explained more,  “Brian’s holding onto a branch and we try to hold on and we all just go in the drink. You know, we had a good time. Obviously, it was sad, but, you know, we got on with life.”

You can carry joy and grief together.  But you can carry other complicated emotions together too.

You can have anger or fear, but also carry love and grace.  You can offer mercy to others even as you hurt. You can love others even as they don’t understand.  You can have faith even if angry with God.  Many carry a hope in eternal life through their faith while living with despair on earth.

Because we carry complicated, and sometimes contradictory emotions, it does not make us insincere.  It makes us human.

There will be times when joy fills up your day and there is little to no grief.  And sometimes, it may be the grief that takes up all the space.   We grow from both joy and grief, and we can learn to carry them together.

We do not have to wrap up all the pain in our life before we can have joy again.  It is freedom to know that you don’t need closure to heal.  It is freedom to know that you can find joy and love even while sad.

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Living After a Police Officer Dies

Walking into the large reception area, one might initially think there were many families on vacation. People talking and laughing in small groups with children darting around big islands holding the breakfast spread.

If you look closer, you’ll see some of them wiping away tears. You’ll see the exhausted look of fresh grief on many faces. For others, eyes shine with appreciation of being among family—not related by blood but related by blood lost.

Observe the clothing. You’ll notice many shirts with memorial messages such as “Some people wait a lifetime to meet their hero. Mine raised me.” Or “My brother’s life mattered.”   Some shirts include favorite Bible verses.  Looking closer, you’ll see many people wearing buttons with pictures of smiling police officers.

FullSizeRenderIn the hall is a memory board filled with tangible signs of heartache. The messages written by children seem to jump out the most.

“I love you Dad and miss you.”

“I will never forget you mom! I love you with all my heart!!”

“I wish you were here to see my accomplishments.”  

“I love you PawPaw.”

Some of the messages starkly remind us of relationships that are affected for generations after death.

“I miss you Grandad even though I never met you.” 

“I wish you could see your grandchildren you have.”

This is the annual gathering of C.O.P.S.: Concerns of Police Survivors.   Families, friend and co-workers of police officers who have died come together to support each other during National Police Week in Washington D.C.   The C.O.P.S. organizers work tirelessly to provide sessions for the different groups of survivors: children, adult children, parents, spouses, siblings, co-workers, and in-laws. They have events through the year in other locations, too.

Most of the people there had a police officer die in the past 12 months.   But some of them are returning to the conference years later.   One woman had a brother killed 40 years ago, which she shared with tears. Several people told me they are returning to the conference over 10 years since their loved one died primarily to support the new survivors. Yet, each of them also said they were greatly touched by the conference in ways not anticipated.

I had the honor of giving a keynote address for their first day of the conference. The families can spend up to a week there participating in various activities, candlelight vigils, and memorial services along with the support sessions.

My favorite part of being at the conference was talking with survivors. Their stories of heartache, courage, and hope never cease to amaze. It can be overwhelming to look at a room of over 800 people and know that each of them carries a tragic story.   But you need to know that they have beauty in their stories, too.

My talk centered on how to carry joy and grief together—assuring them that they did not need “closure” to heal. That message resonates with survivors. They want to talk about their loved ones. They need to have time and freedom to grieve. They are capable of laughing and having joy, but they also need the space to be in pain. Some of them are angry and need a place to vent. Some want to share how God is faithful to them in their grief.  They have stories to share.

The Director of the FBI and the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service both gave moving tributes to the families. The survivors appreciated the leaders of these law enforcement agencies reaching out to them. But I sensed that for many survivors, what they wanted even more was for a greater percentage of “everyday people” in their lives to walk the long road with them.

To be fair, many of them do have that kind of support, or at least have one or two people who provide that long-term encouragement. But we can do better. As one survivor said, “It’s like everyone needs sensitivity training. They shouldn’t ask me how I feel if they are not willing to hear me out.” One of the hardest things to hear is people talk about how friends and family no longer want to listen to them. Sometimes even just days or weeks after a death, they are told to “move on.”

Here is a brief thought on how to support those grieving. Understand it is not your place to take away their pain. Don’t try to fix anything. I understand people worry about not knowing what to say.   Take the pressure off yourselves regarding your vocabulary because there are no “right words” to make it better. Survivors don’t want you to talk them into feeling better. They want people to be present in their pain. Listen without trying to use words to make them change how they feel. Listen without many words at all. Many people feel better by having a chance to talk and share their journey.

It takes time. And there is no “going back to normal” for them. However, there is hope and healing as they learn to live with loss. And there is beauty, faith, hope, and strength in that journey. Speaking of beauty, most of the leaders in this organization are returning survivors—mothers, co-workers, fathers, spouses, adult children, siblings—who now light the way for newly bereaved families.

Thank you to the C.O.P.S. organization for allowing me to join you. What an amazing amount of support you give to thousands of families around the nation. I’m sorry so many need you, but I’m thankful you are reaching out.



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Two Things Children Should Know about Grief

Talking to my girls about death and loss is hard. I do not want them to face deep pain, but I know they will.   They have already faced some losses, but I know harder grief is coming. Just like I know painful loss is coming for everyone reading this. And some of you have already faced tremendous grief.   Life is full of losses.

In a recent conversation with my children, I said there were two things I wanted them to remember about grief.   First, you are not alone. And second, you can carry joy and grief together.

You are not alone. There will be other people who share your pain. You are not the only one going through the heartache. No one will have the perfect understanding of what you are feeling, but there will be others who also miss the person or thing you are grieving. Do not feel like you are the only person carrying such pain. You can share it with others. That does not mean you need to grieve like others do. We each love in our own ways, and therefore our grief is also unique.

Grieving individually and feeling alone are two different things. Feeling alone with the pain can be frightening. Let children (and adults) know they can ask questions or share their feelings. Children may seem like they are doing okay but actually have many questions. Days, weeks, months, even years after a particularly deep loss, find a way to raise the subject. Let them know it is okay to talk about a loved one who died. Let them know it is okay to still miss that person. Let them know they are not alone.

You can carry joy and grief together. When you are really sad and deep in grief, know that you can also have joy. The joy may not come right away. Or maybe it will. Either way is okay. Maybe you’ll be sad, and then you’ll suddenly laugh at something you see or hear.   That’s okay. Do not feel bad if you are sad and then laugh.   Or you may be having a good time, and then you suddenly feel very sad.   That’s okay, too. We can carry multiple emotions.

Do not think you have to have all the pain go away before you can have fun or even just go about your ordinary routine. You are not being disloyal to the person you miss if you are experiencing joy. We can carry the joy and grief as we learn to live with loss.

There are other things I want them to know about grief, and we talk about a lot more. But these two points provide a good starting place for finding freedom to grieve.

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Good Friday, Good Grief

A Good Friday tenebrae service is one of my favorite times in church. In Latin “tenebrae” means shadows or darkness in Latin.   In a tenebrae service, there is a gradual extinguishing of candles while reflecting on the death of Jesus.

For Christians, the Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services are holy and foundational to their faith. In addition, the space for grief is another reason I love the tenebrae service. The songs and scripture reflect grieving and lamenting. Too often, church services or conversations with Christians do not give enough time for expressions of pain, loss, and grief. We want to rush to the happy stuff. We want to convince ourselves and others that life is all good. But life can be really hard.

I’m not suggesting that we should only focus on our grief during Good Friday. However, it is part of a person’s healing journey to take time to reflect on death and loss as part of life.

_DSC0949Don’t get me wrong. I love Easter, too.   The celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The hope and joy that sounds out with trumpets.   But it is important to remember Good Friday before getting to Easter.   As a foundation in the Christian faith, Easter only comes because of Christ’s death.

In our grieving journeys, it is important to leave room for the pain and grief. That is true when helping others, too.   Don’t rush people to joy and hope without giving them space to express the anguish.

If you are able to find a tenebrae service in your area, try going. Then follow up with an Easter that brings hope. There is space for both joy and grief.    May you find peace during this Holy Week and Easter.

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Live, Love, & Laugh: Inspired by Don Schweingruber

My daughters fill the room with laughter as one of them hangs a big rubber band from her ear. To understand why, you have to know more about their PopPop Don. One day, their PopPop told them about a time when he was Dean of Students. Don conducted a serious meeting with a student only to find out afterwards that he had a big rubber band hanging from his ear the entire time. He had been playing around with the rubber band prior to the meeting and forgot that he had looped it on his ear. When we listen to him retell the story, he laughs right along with us. When his granddaughters drape a rubber band on an ear, his eyes sparkle at their joy. It is inspiring to hear his stories and breathe in his attitude about life. _DSC0741

For over 20 years, I’ve watched my father-in-law, Don Schweingruber, live life to its fullest. He spent 33 years as the Dean of Students at Bluffton University. Retired now, he continues to enjoy his roles as husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, neighbor, and sports fan.

Don is truly loved by hundreds of people. And I’m here to ask, “Why?” Now don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying it is hard to understand why he and my mother-in-law are both beloved, but I wanted to capture some of the reasons why. His attitude about life has inspired me and I think it can inspire you. Furthermore, the majority of the time I’ve known him, he has been making life worth living while living with cancer. That’s not easy to do.

So here is my attempt to capture the essence of Don Schweingruber.

Look for the good and be the positive.
Perhaps one of the first things you’d notice about Don is that he focuses on the good in life. Sure, there are times when he has to work at that attitude, especially when he gets discouraging news. But he does the work. He has learned how important it is to look for the good in situations and, most importantly, in each person. And more often than not, Don IS the positive in a situation. That quality attracts others because we long for joy. So if you want to love and be loved, look for the good and be the positive.

Learn from mistakes but let go of past what-ifs.

From what I see, Don spends little time ruminating about past mistakes or second-guessing decisions. He learns from mistakes and makes amends if necessary. But he also knows you have to put energy in the present rather than beating yourself up over the past. Don is able to live well without agonizing over what he “should have done,” or “could have done,” or “would have done if only.” He was letting go before that song went viral.

Laugh whenever you can, especially at yourself.
Living life to its fullest includes laughter. In order to get more laughs in a day, it helps to learn how to laugh at yourself. We give ourselves plenty of comedic material if we’d just see it that way. Don is able to poke fun at himself as you can see with the rubber band! That is also one of the reasons people love to be around him. When others see that someone is confident enough to laugh at himself, then that vulnerability opens up a chance to connect. Importantly, laughter helps us catch our breath in times of trial.

Learn to listen and listen to learn.
Don likes to laugh, but he can also be serious. He learned through his career in working with students, faculty, and staff at a University that you need to listen in order to learn what is going on and what others need. He also knows that listening can help people heal. Conflicts are resolved more effectively through listening. If you want to help others, learn to listen with compassion.

Lift up others.
In his professional and personal life, Don strives to lift up others. He enjoys seeing people grow. He has done a lot in his life to help people get started in their careers or to support individuals through difficult trials. He is there to lift up others and then is willing to step back when they start thriving. He focuses on the joy in watching others succeed. He lifts people up, which in turn lifts him.

Lead with grace.
As a leader in his work and community, Don has had to discipline students and evaluate personnel. There are times when he needs to make hard decisions. When doing so, Don does not lose sight of grace. He guides others with compassion and strives to preserve the dignity of all involved. He knows that people and relationships are important and also vulnerable, so he leads with grace.

Lose with faith.

Don is an avid sports fan, especially anything Pittsburgh. When a team that he favors loses, he has faith in looking to the next game or season. But loss is often not just a game. Some losses in life suddenly get very serious. When family and friends die, we face a loss that cannot be easily brushed aside. But, still, Don views loss in a context of faith. His faith in God helps him look to the future. Faith does not take the pain out of loss, but it provides a compass to guide us in life.

Live with hope.
Not only does Don have faith in the midst of loss, he holds on to hope in life. He has hope in his faith. He has hope in knowing that joy and love will win out over darkness. He has hope in knowing that even when life gets hard, there is joy and goodness to be found. He has hope in his assurance that God has a plan for him.

And the greatest of these is love. Love is the common thread that weaves its way through the other principles. Don loves people. He loves life. He looks around to see which neighbor or friend or stranger he can love by lending a helping hand. Because he has shown love to so many people in his life, he receives love beyond measure.

I know it may sound like I’m saying Don is near perfect. So for the record, he is not. He makes mistakes. (Perhaps I’ll work on a separate post describing some of my favorite examples of those.) I add this comment to give others encouragement that a life well lived is not the same as a life without mistakes. A life worth living is not the same as a life free of problems. We learn from our troubles and we grow when we focus on how to keep living life to its fullest even while facing trials.

If you are looking to enrich your life, follow these principles.

Look for the good and be the positive.
Learn from mistakes but let go of past what-ifs.
Laugh whenever you can, especially at yourself.
Learn to listen and listen to learn.
Lift up others.
Lead with grace.
Lose with faith.
Live with hope.

If the list looks overwhelming, choose one principle to work on first. Then try to build on it. If you get stuck, just hang a big rubber band from your ear and go from there.

Thanks, Don, for inspiring me.

Nancy Berns

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Blazing a Trail in Corn and Life

Every fall, my family takes on the challenge of a local corn maze. We are determined to find all of the wooden animals that are stationed throughout the maze. It generally takes us over an hour. We have our strategy as we work together to explore every nook and trail. If we had an aerial view map of the maze, we could go much quicker. But where would the fun be in that?

Life is a maze. If we look into the past, from a higher view, we see where we took “dead end” turns and later think we should have gone right rather than left. When viewing the maze from overhead, it is easy to see that “shorter path” to the finish.

_DSC0586When we look back at our life, we see the maze. But unlike the predetermined maze in the corn field, the maze in our life unfolds along the way. We fail to realize, however, that the maze was not there when we started. We are not created to be a rat in a maze. We blaze the trail as we go.

There is not just one way that your life must unfold. We learn from those “dead ends” and we can find lessons and beauty in the trails that end up going in a circle. If you are going to look backwards, do so with the appreciation of the interesting pattern and patchwork of your life. Then turn forward again and keep creating your amazing journey.

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How Do We Keep Caring in a Broken World of Pain?

On an early Friday evening, my daughters and I sat on an outdoor patio at a local restaurant. I gazed at their expressive faces, delighting in their laughter and conversation. Our peace evaporated as a van pulled up in the parking lot next to us. At first the sounds from the vehicle were fine. Then their two-year old girl started to get out the wrong side of the van. Well, the wrong side according to her father. He yelled at her to go to the other side. She still tried to get out. He grabbed her and yelled louder. She screamed and called him a name. He yelled back and physically moved her to the other side.

I watched, waiting to see if intervention would be needed. Then I turned in time to see tears streaming down my youngest daughter’s face. She had stopped eating, as we all did, as she worried about that little girl.

I said, “She’ll be okay.” My daughter nodded bravely. Of course, I don’t know for sure. In that moment, it appeared the little girl was going to be fine based on the eventual resolution. But what might happen if her father’s anger grows even more violent? How might the harsh language affect her ability to care and love? We live in a dark world where bad things happen. How do we help?

The next day, my daughter walked into my office and glanced at the computer. The headline of the news article on the screen referred to the dead body of Michael Brown lying in the street. I said, “Don’t read it.” I didn’t think she needed the details at that point. But I could tell she already caught the headline. She looked down, eyes filling. I gently told her, “There are a lot of bad things in the world. You know some of them and you will learn more as you get older, but you will also keep learning how to help. We need to focus on how to help.” She nodded. I know I have to help her keep the empathy and sensitivity without being overwhelmed with sadness.

In my research, teaching, and church ministry, I frequently hear the pain of others. I listen to the news and it can get depressing. I survive by focusing on trying to help.

But how do we help? We can get lost in thinking that we have to be present in the current tragedies that fill the news. People wonder, “How do we help a situation like the painful events in Ferguson, MO? How do we help those facing death and torture in countries around the world?” It can be misleading to think those are the places where most of us are going to help. Yes, we need some people there. But most of us are called to help right where we are.

Reach out to your neighbor, a stranger in line with you, an acquaintance, or a friend. Look around your community and see what can be done to foster peace and offer kindness. We strive to prevent tomorrow’s violence by nurturing today’s relationships. Be kind and patient. Listen to others. Let people share their hurt. Be open to tears. Talk to people different from you in order to understand their lives better. Pray for guidance in how to offer love and grace more than judgment.

I know this may sound simplistic. With the complicated struggles in the world, it may feel like the simple acts of kindness are too little. But if we don’t start with the basics, we cannot provide a foundation from which to foster understanding and peaceful resolutions to conflict. I enjoy the story of how the legendary basketball coach John Wooden would start practice with his team. He taught them how to put on socks. He said they had to make sure there were no wrinkles in the socks. Then he showed them how to properly tie the shoes so the socks stayed in place, preventing blisters. He started with the basics. We cannot overlook the simple acts of kindness and the attention to getting wrinkles out of relationships early so that we prevent the blisters later.

When I see the fresh tears streaking my child’s face, I remember how precious, and sometimes scarce, are the gifts of compassion and empathy. We cannot give up caring even when surrounded by news of sad, traumatic, violent events. We need more compassion and kindness.

Feel the tears of empathy. Then focus on what you can do to help someone near you.





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Be the Beauty in Our Broken World

In an earlier post, I wrote about how we have to rethink the definition of beauty in order to find it in brokenness.  In addition to broadening our imagination of what beauty means, we need to expand our awareness of how small acts of kindness can give others great beauty.

We live in a broken world—poverty, discrimination, crime, death, and war. We also continually face natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. We need to stay encouraged in knowing there is beauty and hope in this brokenness—otherwise it gets too depressing and overwhelming to reach out a helping hand.

Anyone can offer moments of encouragement, hope, and beauty to others. And perhaps it is just as important to tell you that anyone around you might become a source of beauty.

Amazing advances in technology and innovation in this digital world have changed the way we live.   However, you will still find more beauty in simple acts of humanity.

In one of my classes, I have crime victims talk to my students about their experiences with crime and the complications that follow.  One year, Samuel, a man in his 70s, shared with my students about abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his parents. As he grew up, he became angry, bitter, and started to hurt others. In high school, a teacher changed his life. The first day of class, she waited at the door when students were leaving in order to shake their hands. He tenderly recalled how she took his hand in both of hers and said “Samuel, I’m looking forward to getting to know you.” He was shocked, and touched, that anyone would want to get to know him. Over 60 years later, that simple act of a teacher shaking his hand and warmly greeting him still brought tears to his eyes.

In that same class, Fred told my students about the pain of losing his son because of a drunk driver. As part of his work doing victim impact panels in prisons, he met another inmate who had nothing to do with his son’s death. Nonetheless, the inmate, who is an artist, drew a portrait of Fred’s son at no cost.  The grieving father said: “Words cannot describe the healing that artwork has provided.”

Acts of kindness can change people’s lives even if you do not see the results.   Anyone can give beauty to others in our broken world.   But you need to be ready.   Look up from your phones. Disconnect from technology more so you can connect with those around you.  Look people in the eyes and listen to their stories.

at lake for blogSometimes you cannot know the misery in one’s life, but you should always work to treat others with compassion and patience. You will add beauty to people’s lives in ways that you’ll never hear about or see.

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