God Bless Americans!

For his July article in 2015, Careers in Government asked Liam to write something based around Independence Day. He wanted a piece that included everybody. The original can be seen at

www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/god-bless-america/

GOD BLESS AMERICANS

America, to the outsider, can be many different things. A Superpower, the Land of Hope and Glory,  the most advanced nation on earth, the capital of the world for, among other things,  film and entertainment, space exploration, global business and information technology. The country that through names like Coca Cola, Google, McDonalds, Hollywood and Elvis Presley has left its imprint on every other country in the world, more than any other. But as America is big, outside evaluations of it also tend to be big to match.  Broad descriptions that are often void of the essential human detail. They forget that it takes many inches to make the mile. America would not be America without Americans.

I suffered from this universal branding of America before I first visited in the late eighties. I was under the impression that it was all going to be pretty much the same. Each city would be a similar reflection of the one before. The same shops on different streets with the only variation being a different profile to the splatter of high rise buildings. But shortly after I arrived I began to realize the folly of my premature illusion. I had also forgotten the essential ingredient, the people. How foolish to think you could know somewhere before you even get there.

The people I met in Chicago were different from those I met in New York. The lifestyle in the cities on the east coast were like a different country to those on the west. Los Angeles and San Francisco are in the same state. but that is where the similarities end. Visually, climatically and socially they are a world apart. The mid west is very different to the north east and both of them are just barely related to the deep south. Where else in the world would you find two places in the same country as disconnected as Alaska and Hawaii. And Las Vegas is just a planet all of its own! How could I have indoctrinated myself for so long that this was just one big country.

The one thing that I found to be the same no matter where I went in America was the warmth and hospitality of its great patriotic people. It was the star spangled glue that cemented all the diversity together. Across a range of locations, from a diner in New York to a dusty convenience store in Arizona, I found nothing but a consistent, common thread of nice people. People who will naturally tend to like you from the outset, until you give them a reason to dislike you. Rather than the other way round. Decent, hard working people who were always friendly and helpful in any way they could. Bruce Springsteen kind of people.

Outside impressions of America therefore are often inaccurate if they are only based on being big or brash or powerful.  They tend to be influenced by the America beyond America, the huge U.S. global institutions that the rest of the world is so familiar with like Microsoft, or Disney, or Wal-mart, or Ford, or Budweiser, rather than the human touch.

But that is not America.  America is the loyal factory worker in Detroit, the conscientious horse breeder in Kentucky, the Baptist Minister in Alabama, the friendly cleaning lady in New York. These people are the blood in the veins of this great nation. They are the inches that make the mile. If one inch is missing, it is not a mile. Without the blood, there is no body.

So all of you who live in America, just keep getting up every day and doing what you do. Just about all of you do it very well. The scientist in her laboratory tirelessly searching for a cure for cancer.  The garbage man who will not see an old lady cross the street unaided. The young soldier who is prepared to fight and die so a country he barely knows can also enjoy the freedom he believes in. The Company Director who knows that people are the greatest investment of all.

You are the people who make America great. Every single one of you. The reputation of a nation may be global, but it can be traced right down through the strands of every individual it contains.

So when God blesses America, it is you he has in mind. He is not concerned with the corporations, or the buildings, or the lunar modules, or the freeways, or the institutions. It’s the people he cares about. For him America is every single individual it contains.

And if you can say in return that each day you set out to do the best you could, as often as you could, then no better service can you have given.

You will have played your part in what has made America great.

 

3 Months to live. What would you do?

This was Liam’s June 2015 article for Careers in Government. It covers what went through his head when he was first offered treatment, but told it was likely that treatment would end his life before his cancer got to.  

13 years ago I was given 3 months to live. It appeared to be absolute. I had just been diagnosed with one of the worst cases of Head & Neck cancer ever seen. All of those who had gone before me were gone within 3 months.

I was just getting to grips with this predicament when my 3 months took a new shift. A cancer hospital in Liverpool was one of the few places in the world that could even look at a case like mine and, impressed by my fighting spirit, they wanted to give me a chance. But even there, they didn’t think I had any hope and told me the surgery I required was so risky it was very likely that I would never recover from it.

I would be trading in the 3 months I had left.

Two consultants explained the procedure in detail to me and outlined the many dangers. If I was still alive after the operation it would be a success in itself. The price of that success was almost certainly going to be that I would be disabled, blind, dumb, deaf or mentally impaired. The most likely scenario was that I would end up with some combination of all 5.

Or I could simply do nothing.

That was the only way to guarantee that the rest of my life would contain at least 3 months of good quality of life. But that was all it would contain.

They went to leave the room to give privacy to myself and my wife Pam, to contemplate the dark dilemma I was now in and make on our decision. It was about 5 paces from where they were standing to the door.

The brain obviously is extremely adept at correlating priorities at times like this. Just after they had taken their first step it flashed an image of my 3 small children in front of me. It told me that 3 months would make very little impact on their memory of me in 10 or 20 or 30 years time. Even if I brought them to a new Disneyland on Mars in the next few weeks they were all too young for it to be retained as a major landmark of their lives.

Then it turned to me. What would you do if you had 3 months to live. For some reason the activity that sprang to mind was a round the world cruise. By now they were taking their third pace and although my body still stood there in front of them, my mind was looking out to sea on a luxury cruise liner, somewhere off the coast of New Zealand.

I had a glass of champagne in my hand.

Now it asked me what was going through my head.

There was only one emotion. My brain was absolutely furious with me.

“What the hell are you doing here”.

“Those two men in Liverpool offered you a chance and here you are toasting your life away. All you wanted was a chance and if a chance came it was your job to take it. You should be on that slab fighting this to the last like a real man would”.

I knew at that point that not only would I not enjoy a single minute of the world cruise, it was also the last place I wanted to be.

By now the first consultant was about to put his hand on the door handle. I told them there was no need to go. The decision was already made. If they were telling me they were prepared to offer me a chance then it was my duty to everything I believed in, to take that chance.

The rest is history. Wonderful history.

So one day, just out of the blue, tell yourself you have 3 months to live and see what comes up. As you pan across your life will you regret that your car isn’t bigger, or that you didn’t buy that beach house you looked at, or that you didn’t work even harder to win the prestigious contract two years ago.

Or will it be that you haven’t made up with your brother since that silly argument last Christmas, or that you haven’t told your Mom you love her in over a year, or that you missed out on all those years as your kids were growing up.

Giving yourself 3 months to live is like taking a duster to your life. It will push away a lot of clutter. It will help you reset what are your true priorities, in the correct order.

If you do it now, when your time eventually does come you will already be a step ahead!

– See more at: http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/education/be-inspired-what-would-you-do-with-3-months-to-live/#sthash.2nXeQsOL.dpufive

Journey to the End

This was Liam’s 5th publication on the Careers in Government website in March 2015. It is one of the stories from his book and outlines two trips he made to the opposite ends of the British mainland with his 3 great friends, Peter Morgan, Paul Crothers and Brendan Kilpatrick and the unexpected perspective he received from the contrasting end destinations. The original can be viewed at www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-go

 

When I was in college in Liverpool I was fortunate to befriend one of those people that are all too rare in the world. Everybody loved Peter Morgan. His infectious likeability became the social lynch pin of our entire year group. His pranks were both ingenious and hilarious, no matter which side of them you ended up.
One Friday he cornered three of us after a morning lecture. “I have a brilliant plan for the weekend” he beamed. “We’re all going to John O’Groats”!
John O’Groats is the most northerly point of Scotland, the very tip of the British mainland. He had discovered that we could rent a car, at a very cheap rate, as long as we had it back by Monday morning. Just enough time to get to John O’Groats and back!
Sure, we all thought, another of Pete’s famous jokes. But before we could work out what the angle was this time, we were all charging up towards Scotland in a new car. He had worked his magic over us again.
The journey was eventful in itself. We had an overnight stop in Glasgow and then needed a replacement car from the rental company after we hit a bridge north of Inverness. We eventually reached John O’Groats late on Saturday night.
There was little to suggest that this was a place of settlement. John O’Groats was merely a single pub with a few houses nearby scattered across a headland. We ordered four whiskys in the pub that would both insulate and tranquilize us for the cold nights camping that lay ahead.
The next morning we made the short walk to the very tip of Scotland, John O’Groats. By now, having slept as close to him as anybody ever had, we felt we knew him well enough to just call him “John”. This place was bleak and barren, but beautiful. One of those locations where you feel whoever made the world, is very near.
The four of us just stood there, both collectively and individually, on top of the windswept cliffs as the North Sea pounded the rocks below. We had “John” all to ourselves. Nature had taken over our senses as if it was the only thing in the world that mattered. It WAS the world and we had the best seats in the house.

But John O’Groats is only half a journey. You can’t have Adam without Eve, or Tom without Jerry, or Laurel without Hardy.
You can’t go to John O’Groats without going to Land’s End. A few years later the opportunity eventually presented itself for us to complete the mission. The circumstances had changed by then. We were all working and two of us were married. It was never going to be the cheap student hike our Scottish trip had been. Instead of freezing in a tent we stayed in luxury accommodation. Instead of rambling around in the rain because it was free, we went jet skiing in St. Ives. Instead of fish and chips, we dined in the best restaurants.
It was as if Land’s End was also aware of our upgrade in circumstances. Instead of rugged and bleak it was commercial and glossy. Instead of windy and wet it was sunny and calm. Instead of free we had to pay to use the car park.
And yet, for all its glamour and amenity, the magic was missing.

These two journeys were to leave a considerable mark on the rest of my life. Land’s End seemed to represent most of the things I had strived for from a young age – prosperity, impression, conformity, security. But on arrival it was bland, artificial and shallow. All of the best memories will always be firmly rooted in John O’Groats.
For all our advancements sometimes less is more. The little things will be big and the big things small. The last will be first and the first will be last.
I’m older now and see these journeys more clearly. Give me a windswept Scottish headland any day before a sanitised tourist resort. Give me the memory of four young men peering out at the sunrise from a wet tent rather than another indistinguishable hotel room.
Give me back that all too short period of your life, when you have the freedom, the spirit and the nerve, to do just about anything.

 

What Comes After Success and Wealth?

Liam’s 3rd blog for Careers in Government, posted November 2014. It is available at http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/career-advice/comes-success-wealth/

I really only told half a story in my Life: The End or Just the Beginning? .

“Death” and “What do you think happens next” are located pretty close together in the human brain filing cabinet. You can’t really access one without accidentally opening up the other too. So as soon as I had braved the “You won’t be here next week” door, I was immediately confronted by another.

It said “And where do you think you will be the week after that”!

And where would I be?

Is this it. Am I just to die and get buried and become a meal for the worms. Or will I return in a few days as a tree or a dog or another human being. Or is there a heaven and a hell and if so, which one has been told to get ready for my imminent arrival. The likely possibility of your demise takes you to parts of your mind you rarely visit.

From the earliest days of my life I have observed people with faith. Without analysing the details of what that faith entailed, I thought it was a good thing. I saw older people especially, who had been discarded by both the abilities of their bodies and society in general, derive the strength to keep going through their faith. Their beliefs, even if they turned out to be untrue, were doing them good. Their faith was giving them motivation, when the world that surrounded them no longer could or would.

Faith allows you to tackle anything this world can throw at you because it permits you to remove yourself from the world itself.

Many of my friends do not believe in God. As I looked at what I believed in, I wanted to view it from their perspective. I wanted to keep the argument rational. So I looked at the world and all its wonderful complexities of mountains and oceans and stars and volcanoes. Then I looked at the worlds we know beyond that, the moon, the planets, the sun and faraway galaxies. And pretty soon I came to a very simple, personal conclusion.

We can’t have made all this.

In the vast scale of the universe we inhabit we appear like little ants scurrying around on a daily basis. The best of us make mistakes every day. We get sick. We are not strong. The worst of us commit unimaginable atrocities.

I could see good men persevere through lives of hardship. And bad ones elevated to positions where they could dominate and control and destroy.

I believed there has to be something more.

It seemed just as rational to argue there is something greater as it was to say there is not. If it is crazy to believe in an after-life, it seems to be just as proportionally arrogant to say there isn’t one when the evidence seems to point to far more than we could ever be capable of.

Declaring that man is the be all and end all seemed to me like saying the sun revolves around the earth. That was an absolute for a long time too.

So when I did look, the world that I saw generally fitted in with what I had been brought up to believe. Be a good person. Try and be a better person. Bring as much love and goodness to this world as you can.

Nobody could fault those aspirations, nowhere in the world. If we could all live by them, the world would be a perfect place. But perfection is not for here. They are aspirations rather than absolutes. We are all flawed. The mission appears to be not, not to fail, but to keep trying after you fail. And to try to fail less often. Your conscience is your guide to how hard you have tried. Your faith is your inspiration to try again.

Faith, to me, is a completely personal thing. It is as unique to you as your fingerprints or your personality. You and what you believe in. Religion can be a medium, but your faith is your own. I don’t believe we have each been given a conscience without reason. It is your direct connection to whatever it is that you believe in.

It is also universal. The general principles don’t change. A good person in the city is a good person in the jungle, or in the desert or on the ice caps. And they haven’t changed in 2000 years. A good person then is a good person today. The need the herd us all under different banners, with different rules and regulations, that has occurred in the intervening period, seems to me to have come a lot more from man, than it did from God.

So my faith became an essential part of my fight too. It was one of the few pieces of my armour that could withstand extreme pain, discomfort and despair. And the strongest part to see off even death itself.

It has remained in place as an essential element of my second life. It tries to guide me to do the best I can, as often as I can. It isn’t always successful of course. But the most important thing is that it keeps me trying.

So when the day does come and I get to meet God, or an alien, or a talking spaceship, or just the worms, I will say that the only life I knew was that of a human being. That I looked at the world around me and using the judgement that had been trusted to me I believed there was more to life than wealth and power and impression. That the basic principles of right and wrong are the same for all and known to all. I hope to say that I tried to live my life based on those assessments and tried to make the best decisions I could. I tried to do good rather than bad.

But I will also remind them that I am not God, or an alien, or a robot, or a worm. I am human and therefore I am flawed. So I will have made plenty of mistakes too. But, every time I stumbled, I hope to be able to say it didn’t stop continuing to climb the mountain. If I fell, I got up and carried on. And I resumed knowing the important thing was not how high you were, but how well you had climbed.

What happens next will be up to them………

Life: Is it the end or just the beginning?

Liam’s 2nd piece for Careers in Government, posted October 2014 It is available at http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/education/life-end-just-beginning/#sthash.0YZ5WfO7.XbmcUyvk.dpuf

Life.  Is it the end or just the beginning?  I went to a funeral yesterday. I have gone to a lot of funerals over the last 12 years of people who expected to be going to mine. It reminded me again of how we can all be so busy living, we forget about dying.

We want to forget about dying.  But we are all going to die. It is the worst kept secret in the world.

In the middle of my treatment I was asked if I got ready to die. This was done by people who either knew me well enough, or whose curiosity was brave enough.  From my diagnosis, I always knew that if I did survive, I would have come as close to death, as any human being possibly could, without actually dying.

I considered therefore, that I would have been foolish to ignore the possibility of my demise, or pretend it wasn’t going to happen.  It was, after all, the elephant in the room. And the room was very small.

I also knew my fight would only be as strong as its weakest link.  I couldn’t afford to have a chink in my armour. If I did my cancer would find it and devour my resistance through it.  For that to happen I needed to be not afraid to die.  Being not afraid was part of that armour.

So one night, as I lay on my hospital bed, I told myself I would not be here this time next week. How did I feel?  After an initial very deep breath I was amazed at where I was taken from there. It was only when I forced myself to focus on the part of my glass that was half empty did I begin to see what I now recognized as the portion that was half full.

I had lived a wonderful life. At 40, I had reached the top of the hill and was just beginning to go down the other side. I had come from a great family, gone to college, became an architect, married a great woman and lived to see three of my own children come into the world.

Suddenly I began to see the people who hadn’t lived a life anything like I had. The 3 year old diagnosed with leukemia. The 17 year old who comes off a motorcycle. The 20 year old who leaves home, only to never return again.

Then I could see people who would live twice as long as me but who would never have anything like the life I had. The child soldier. The oppressed factory worker. The many people in the world whose entire lives are blighted by illness or violence or poverty. Perspective is the antidote to fear of death. I was now glad that I had lived so well, for so long. I had turned a frightening negative into an immense positive.

I felt I had sat at a poker table with the Grim Reaper that night. I took the aces out of his hand. Now he had nothing on me. My cancer knew everything had changed. If it was going to claim me, it would only be after being dragged, kicking and screaming, down every single road available to me.

Had I not looked at my death, I would not have seen my life. My appreciation of that life meant that if my time had come, I wasn’t afraid to die. If I wasn’t afraid to die, there was nothing I was afraid of. I was indestructible now. My pain threshold went through the ceiling.

I just put all those thoughts away then. I knew they were there. That was all that mattered. I didn’t want them to dilute my fight. I would only return to them when there was only one outcome left. That outcome didn’t come. But they will still be there for me when it eventually does.

We all spend too much of our lives inhibited by fear. Fear of being different. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of what others will think. Fear of dying. Fear often clogs up the lives we should let ourselves lead. It blinds us as to how beautiful and precious life IS, not can be. If we all dealt with the fear that one day we will die and put it away we would be amazed at what it would do. It would stop letting negatives dictate to us. It would free us to value and appreciate and do things differently. It would make us strong.

I wouldn’t be here without it. By not being afraid to die, I lived.

The Gift of Life

Michael Hurwitz of Careers on Government in the U.S. came across Liam’s story in August and was so taken with it that he asked him to write a piece for a monthly blog he collates called Gov. Talk. It goes out to public sector workers all over America. The Gift of Life was posted on Sept. 11th 2014 and received a great response. He has now become a regular contributor to the Careers in Government monthly blog.

The original article can be accessed here – http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/public-sector-trends/gift-life/

A variety of routes exist that will take you from anonymity to being noteworthy. Most will travel by way of exceptional achievements in business or politics or sport or entertainment. In my case, the route was a little different. It selected me, rather than I choose it.

12 years ago I was very much minding my own business in the world. I was an architect in a little town in Ireland. I was never destined to one day be asked to write a blog for Careers in Government.

I had never been ill. I had run 6 marathons.

Then, out of the blue, I began to get headaches.

Over two days at my local hospital a suspected routine sinus infection dramatically transformed into one of the worst Head & Neck cancer tumours ever seen.  My consultant told me I was the second worse case he had ever seen. The worst case was dead in a month. Very few hospitals in the world, he told me, could offer any hope to a case like mine.

The end of my life just appeared right in front of me.  I simply had weeks to live.

Eventually, impressed by my fighting spirit, Professor Simon Rogers and his team in Liverpool decided to offer me a chance. But even there, they didn’t believe I would make it. They wouldn’t tell me that so they told me I had a 5% chance.  The problem with serious Head & Neck cancer is the complex treatment required will generally put you in the grave before the cancer gets to.  If I was still alive after surgery I was likely to be without my sight, my speech, my hearing, my mobility, my brain function or any combination of all five.

Survival was all that was on the horizon. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

None of that mattered then. I just wanted to be alive. If I was alive I was winning, and cancer was losing.

I underwent a huge 12 hour operation. They told me it was as big as surgery comes. It was followed by 7 weeks of radical chemo-radiotherapy but in between I got meningitis and a deep vein thrombosis. Both of these nearly killed me by themselves.  By the end of 2002 I simply had no business still being alive, but somehow, I was.

All of that was 12 years ago. My amazing survival has now been outdone by my even more incredible recovery. I am working, talking, running and functioning again just as I did before. Apart from my eyepatch, it is almost as if I never had cancer. My consultants are simply amazed. Through their great work I have become one of the greatest cancer survivors of all time.

From nowhere, I have become noteworthy.

In 2012, on the tenth anniversary, I wanted closure to the amazing survival and recovery element of this story. To achieve this I ran my first marathon, post-cancer and I wrote a book. I wrote the book, not just for cancer patients but for anybody who has a mountain to climb.

I have become the living proof that nothing is for certain.  I have been given a second life and with it comes an opportunity to encourage and inspire.

I have now had responses to this story from all over the world. The greatest say “I was giving up, until I read your story”. When I speak in public I like to offer not just inspiration, but perspective too. I remind everybody that the lost account can be replaced, the crashed car can be repaired, even the prison sentence can be served. I ask them to watch the news again only this time swop roles with the man in the war zone who comes home to find his wife and four children blown up or the woman who finds her entire village washed away by a tsunami.

They are the real heroes.

The longer I live the more I believe very little really matters. It won’t matter where you lived, who you knew or what you had. What will matter is what you did.  When my time does come I want to be able to say this amazing story came to me and I did not, not do something with it. I tried to use it to show everybody of how lucky we really are. To demonstrate how easily we forget what it truly means to be alive and well.

I have been given a chance to live again so that I can die better.

– See more at: http://www.careersingovernment.com/tools/gov-talk/about-gov/public-sector-trends/gift-life/#sthash.SNRleWFh.dpuf