History is not everything, but it is a starting point. History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are, but more importantly, what they must be. – John Henrik Clarke
by Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, authors of Imprints
Your Life Is A Compass
For thousands of years, sailors have used the heavens to guide their journeys through unknown waters, discovering new or forgotten places, or cultures previously unknown. And just as grand adventures across the sea were successfully navigated by bright stars in distant space, men and women were able to find their way home from their grand adventures because of reference points in the sky. Some ancient cultures believed the heavens were filled with gods or celestial beings that provided safe passage, guidance, and wisdom. Many prayed to the stars or the entities these stars represented to help them find their way.
The most significant celestial body used in ancient navigation is the constellation Ursa Minor. Over millennia, the axis of earth’s rotation came to point at what we refer to as the North Star (part of Ursa Minor), and it became the focal point for maritime navigation rather than the entire constellation. This ball of fire in distant space has gone by many names: Polaris, Alpha Ursae Minoris, scip-steorra (“ship-star” in Old English), Dhruva (Hindu for “fixed” or “immovable”). But no matter the name used or the ocean sailed, every sailor looked to this star (or group of stars) for orientation. Every map drawn and navigation chart created was done with this star’s position in the sky in mind. Why? Because it identifies true north. It is a reliable guide.
But using a star as a reference point works only at night. And often clouds blocked man’s view of the sky, storms filled with wind and rain obscured both horizon and the heavens, and crews found themselves off course because true north wasn’t visible. Distractions or dangers residing much closer than a distant star compromised many a journey through the open ocean. But for thousands of years, stars in distant space were the best the world had to offer.
More than two thousand years ago, the Chinese developed an invention that would revolutionize navigation, on and off the water. The first compass, made of lodestone, was crafted in the Han Dynasty between 300 and 200 BC. Due to the Earth’s magnetic field, this naturally magnetized iron ore is attracted to the North Pole, making it possible for travelers to identify true north even when the North Star isn’t visible.
It turns out we can learn a lot from a compass.
In life we need direction, something to point us toward the good we want to do and the people we want to be. We need help navigating dark times or simply dealing with changes that catch us off guard. Sometimes we don’t know we need a course correction, but our lives are desperate for it. For many, faith provides this direction; it is our true north—the thoughts, ideologies, and philosophies that inform our decisions and guide our actions. But faith is something we can’t touch. While we experience it in various ways, we can’t see it, and often it feels out of reach, like the distant North Star. And just like this star, our faith can easily be hidden, clouded by distractions, and our reference point is lost from view.
These distractions come in many forms: trauma, addictions, selfish behaviors, financial struggles, unexpected deaths, disease, divorce. The list of things that derail us is long because we have a million different things vying for our attention. The storms of life bring wind, rain, and dark clouds that can completely obscure our faith. It is in these times that we must rely on things much closer to us to keep our hearts and minds focused on what’s important. We must find a compass that can help point us in the right direction, so when the clouds part, we don’t find ourselves lost at sea.
Each person we know has the capacity to guide us: gently, and sometimes firmly, shifting our focus, turning us toward the things that matter. Their life experiences and what they have chosen to do with those experiences can be the compass we need to show us true north, clarifying the path we need to be traveling. Each person’s history can help us understand where we are, but more importantly, their story can help us understand what we must be. They guide us in being better employees, parents, siblings, or children. They increase our capacity for love and grace as we strive to be the best friend, mentor, or spouse we can be. Our lives are filled with compasses waiting to be used at every turn. We find these people in our churches, workplaces, book groups, friendships, families, kids, and even strangers.
College was a challenging time for me (Justin). I had left my family and my home in small-town Ontario, Oregon, for a much busier lifestyle in San Diego; my best friend, Patrick, was going to school a thousand miles away in Idaho; and a progressive neuromuscular disease was slowly stealing life from my body. A car accident had triggered the disease when I was fifteen, and throughout my college years, it crept its way deeper into the tissues of my legs. I had to give up tennis and running because my strength and balance were fading. Eventually I had to use braces to keep me from falling to the ground when walking.
Despite the support these braces offered, walking to classes became too much for me on the hilly campus of Point Loma Nazarene College, so I was forced to drive to many of them. As I navigated college life, questions about my purpose in this world and doubts about my future often crept to the surface of my mind. How long will I be able to walk? Will I ever find someone who will love me despite my failing body? Will this disease eventually take my life? Each year of college brought many struggles, primarily due to my disease.
But my four years pursuing higher education were also exciting. I got to stretch my wings as I sought independence, experienced new restaurants, explored new subjects, discovered new relationships, and learned from some amazing people.
My parents and many friends have had a remarkable influence on me, but during this time in my life, one man stands out—not because he was a better mentor, but because he possessed something that, though I didn’t know it at the time, I would one day desperately need.
One sunny San Diego day during my sophomore year at Point Loma, I drove to class, parked my car in a handicap spot, and began walking to my nearby classroom. On my way there, a stranger approached me. With a warm smile and firm handshake, he introduced himself. Jim Johnson said he’d stopped me because he saw the braces that supported my lower legs; I assumed his curiosity had gotten the best of him, like so many other people on campus.
Not a week went by where someone didn’t ask, “What’s wrong with your legs?” I had gotten used to the curiosity and did my best not to get annoyed. But in our conversation, I learned that Jim was a professor of Disability Studies and Psychology at Point Loma. He had taken an interest in what I might be dealing with as a disabled student. Throughout the remainder of my college career, we frequently encountered one another on campus, and every time, Jim stopped me and asked how I was doing. He sought to learn how my disease was impacting me physically and emotionally, and he always encouraged me.
I never took a class from Jim, but our conversations always stuck with me. However, it wasn’t what we talked about that carried the most weight. Jim always had time for me. It felt like the world stopped during our interactions. Every discussion started with a hug, an embrace that told me I mattered. Jim’s genuine interest in me as a person, what I was doing with my life, and where I was going, always took me by surprise. He frequently told me to see past my disability, to not let it define me. While I hadn’t necessarily let my limitations define me, I certainly hadn’t recognized how much I could do or what I could be in the face of my disease. Jim saw the potential in every person he met, and he saw purpose in me, even when I didn’t see it in myself. And I saw something in him, something that I didn’t have but wanted.
After graduation, Jim and I saw each other less frequently. But one day he invited my soon-to-be wife, Kirstin, and me to sit down with one of his disability-focused classes. Sitting in front of thirty or so young men and women, I was a little nervous. The topic was the impact of disability on relationships. I don’t remember the details of the class session, but I do remember the love and respect Jim showed to each student—the same love and respect he always showed me. Jim was so proactive in cultivating relationships, so kind and compassionate; this was what I had seen in him several years earlier that I wanted to possess.
But life got busy. I got married, my wife and I had children, and my disease progressed. Honestly, life didn’t just get busy—it got hard. Being a father and a husband in a wheelchair took me down some dark roads, and I needed someone I could look to for guidance. I needed a compass to point me in the right direction so when the clouds parted, I wouldn’t be lost. I needed Jim. Though he wasn’t disabled, and we had very different life experiences, Jim’s ability to build love, compassion, and empathy with all he met drew me to him in a powerful way.
When I called Jim to tell him I needed someone to help me navigate this life I was facing and asked if he would be my mentor, he said yes without hesitation.
Over the next several years, Jim and I spent hours in conversations discussing life, death, faith, and love. And through them all, I was reminded of how the love and compassion Jim showed me was the same love and compassion I wanted to show others. His life wasn’t perfect—he had his own demons—but in spite of the pain he battled, he chose to love others and not focus on his own darkness. It’s not that he ignored it, but sharing in the pain of others, and sharing his pain with them, made everyone’s struggles easier to bear. I needed to do the same thing.
Though I have long since moved from San Diego, I still come back to those conversations and the wisdom Jim shared so many years ago. His conviction that I had purpose is something I have leaned on time and time again through recent years. Now, I live life from a power chair, unable to use my arms or legs. I am dependent upon my wife, Patrick, and others for care. They feed me, bathe me, help me go to the bathroom. Life is a struggle; there is always a darkness lurking nearby. But because of Jim, and others like him, I have something to point me in the right direction, even when I can’t see where I need to go.
Jim’s life has been a compass for me in many ways. The random encounters on campus carried just as much weight as the hours of mentoring over coffee. My relationship with Jim has evolved as we have grown closer. But that first moment, when he approached me as a complete stranger, looked me in the eyes, and treated me with so much compassion, is one I return to often. It is a powerful reminder that my life is a compass for others, whether I like it or not. Even a brief encounter has the potential to change someone, to offer hope, or to develop into a deeper connection. While I’m not always proud of where I am taking those that follow me, knowing that my decisions and actions can have an impact on someone else, just as Jim’s decisions and actions have influenced me, is a powerful motivator to live in such a way that I am proud of where I am taking others.
We all have a history, events that shape who and what we are. And when others turn to us for help, our histories can help shape who and what they are: a young woman using her abusive childhood to help others in similar situations, a man’s interest in cars leading to an after-school program to keep teens off the street, a college student volunteering at the local homeless shelter because she knows what it’s like to be alone and scared. Our lives are filled with a host of opportunities to provide direction to others. The beliefs and behaviors we exhibit are a guide for others when they have lost sight of their true north or need to be pointed in a direction they never knew existed.
This can be a terrifying realization, because the idea that we are constantly influencing others means we have the power to lead them off course. Highly magnetized objects or locations can compromise the integrity of a compass. Many ships have gone down because a compass was distracted by other forces and wasn’t pointing the right direction.
In the same way, when we allow ourselves to be influenced by selfish desires, anger, or deception, we can easily lead people to disaster. We can be the broken compass that points others to dangers waiting just below the surface of the water: the “cool” neighbor who gets a kid to try drugs for the first time or the friend who starts a rumor about someone who has slighted them. Damage is so easy to cause. Casting a negative influence on others is simple when we are driven by selfish desires or anger-filled motivations, or are deceptive in our intentions.
When have you led others off course; when have you been the cause of pain or darkness for someone else? If we are honest with ourselves, we have all been there. We have caused pain; our behaviors have fueled addictions; our selfish desires have led us to put our needs above our friends, spouses, and children. Every one of us has been a broken compass at some point in time. We all have given others bad information or pointed them down a path of pain and suffering. And still people follow.
So what are we to do? How can we ensure that we are worth following? How do we know our history will be one that points others to where they should go and to what they should be? We don’t have all the answers. But we do know this—if we lead with compassion and love, if our actions are fueled by a desire to ease suffering and pain, our compass will point others to a place where that same love and compassion abound.
And that is a direction always worth following.
Imprints by Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray
A Compassion Title
Changing the world does not always require grand gestures or an audience of millions. The little things we do often have the most significant impact on those we encounter. Each small choice we make can spread joy or pain, light or darkness, to others. Examining our influence on the lives we encounter through a lens of love and compassion, Imprints explores the long-lasting impact our words and actions have on our world, reminding us that the legacy we leave behind is built on who we are and how we live our lives day to day.