Karen came into my life in 1996 when she, her husband, and their two young sons moved to our town. I could tell you many things about what a great friend she is—funny, smart, energetic, honest, devoted, you name it. But there’s one quality Karen has that has changed my life, and it’s what I most want you to know about her.

When Karen and I started spending time together, I noticed that she used the same phrase over and over: “Not a brain tumor.” Whenever something inconvenient happened, she’d say these words to her kids, herself, to friends like me, and sometimes to her husband, Jeff, who was the source of it all.

 Karen and Jeff were living outside Philadelphia when doctors discovered his first brain tumor. They operated successfully, and life went on. The second tumor made its presence known during the years the family lived in Anchorage. The third appeared after they had moved to the Outer Banks. Fortunately, each tumor was small and successfully removed.

 It was the tumor in Jeff’s liver that killed him.

 Our family helped Karen and her sons through the horrible days of Jeff’s final illness and death. Four years later, they propped us up when we lost Reid. I could tell you that our friendship has been forged by fire—but even that doesn’t come close to capturing it.

Karen - my funny, smart, energetic, honest, devoted friend

Karen - my funny, smart, energetic, honest, devoted friend

 “Not a brain tumor” is still a big part of Karen’s life. At times she’s able to dismiss irritants that would leave most of us incapacitated by anger. It’s amazing. I strive to live by her model, some days more successfully than others. I highly recommend i

 Has your boss been grumpy? Not a brain tumor; you can deal with it. Are you out of an ingredient you need to make dinner? Did a colleague cancel an appointment with you? No brain tumors there.

Did you have a flat tire in the rain on the way to a job interview? Well, that’s seriously inconvenient, but not a brain tumor. Your potential boss will understand—and if she doesn’t, you likely don’t want to work for her.

You get the idea. But what does this have to do with Seva?

Selfless service is never a one-person show. Anyone who sets out to improve the lives of the less fortunate must work as part of a team. Not only is this more effective, it’s more personally nourishing and sustaining.

Such collaborations require constant flexibility. Everyone has ideas about what will succeed and what will not, and these views sometimes clash. Another person’s failure to see the brilliance of any particular idea—mine, for example, or yours—can be highly upsetting. But it’s not a brain tumor.

 Also, consider the psychological makeup of people in trouble—say, someone who’s homeless or hungry or battered. These folks generally aren’t known for their rational, easygoing natures. Seva practitioners must frequently interact with demanding personalities. It’s critical to be able to discern which problems have the urgency of a brain tumor and which are minor, or even phantoms.

I’ve been trying to view life through a brain tumor lens since long before I began searching for a path to selfless service. Now, in this post-Reid era, I see it as a vital part of the spiritual practice through which I’m rebuilding my life. I’m calmer because of it, and I’m unquestionably a nicer person.

 My hunch is that there’s a Karen or two in each of our lives.

The next time something ruffles your mood and threatens your peace, try thinking about the people you know who are models of calmness, who only cry when they really have something to cry about. Then ask yourself: Is this particular problem really worth the fuss?

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AuthorJan DeBlieu