What Core Principle Has Guided Your Life?


A few weeks ago, the New York Times Opinion Board asked readers to share their “life philosophies”. The quotes or codes of ethics that have governed their life choices and how they view the world. 

A lot of people shared the words of spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” I liked that one. Others adopted the sayings of deceased family members, memorised a sign they’d seen on a park bench, or were inspired by their pets: “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” And a few formed entirely new mantras of their own, like Kristy from Ohio: “Many people live by the Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated), but I’ve come to follow the Platinum Rule, which is to treat others as they wish to be treated. Treating others as they wish to be treated requires a willingness to learn about their lives.” Kristy used the example of being an extrovert: If you treat an introvert like an extrovert just because you’re an extrovert, you’re only going to piss them off or make them anxious. Treat them how they want to be treated. 

My grandmother has been guided by many things throughout her ninety-five years of life; her love of family, never saying no to a glass of brandy or a dessert menu at lunch, not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. But perhaps nothing has guided her more than her faith. A devout Catholic, Nana believes in starting each day with a grateful heart and a word from the Lord. She believes in confessing your sins “and then getting on with it”. And she believes she’s going to heaven when she dies. It’s still being debated whether my Pop – who died ten years ago – will be there waiting for her as he was, by and large, an Atheist. 

The weird thing is, I don’t have any memories of Nana reading the Bible to my sisters and I. Not a single Biblical verse. Not once did Nana get out her rosary beads in front of us and I don’t know whether it was Pop’s influence or just that she thought our generation was a lost cause, but I’m fairly confident she’s never invited any of her ten grandchildren to accompany her to Sunday Mass. 

Instead, the phrase our grandmother has seared in our minds, the eight words she has repeated to us over and over throughout our lives is: “The cream will always rise to the top.” In my twenty-eight years she must have said it at least fifty times. The cream will always rise to the top. 

She’s been slipping it into any conversation she could for as long as I can remember. She’s used it as praise for a grandchild’s hard fought achievement or long overdue promotion. She’s used it as encouragement for one of her adult children going through a marriage breakdown or struggling financially. She’s used it as an affirmation when she see’s a nurse or teacher being publicly acknowledged on the news. And she uses it when someone gets what they deserve; good or bad. It’s not so much a comment on Karma (Nana doesn’t believe in Karma, she believes in the Holy Spirit), but rather her belief that a good person or deed cannot go unnoticed for long, just as cream poured in coffee or tea eventually rises. 

In adulthood, I’ve seen how Nana’s philosophy has challenged her (as well as served as an explanation for why she showed so much grace towards people that frankly I don’t think deserved it). And, as a result, her philosophy now challenges me: To not act out of anger or spite. To be good and to do good by others. To do hard things and remain hopeful in the process. And if the “hopeful” part feels too hard, then just do as the poet Maggie Smith says, “Wear hope like a garment you’ll grow into.” Put it on today and commit to putting it back on tomorrow. Even if it doesn’t fit yet, trust that it will in time.

Trust that the cream will eventually rise.

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