From Rags to Riches to Rags…

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Most of us like stories, especially when we are young. And we like stories that begin at ground O and ascend on up toward 100. An upward climb from low to high is preferable to a downward slide from high to low. “High” usually represents success, while “low” represents failure. So when a boy or girl brings home a report card, he or she wants to report to inquiring parents: I got a high grade, rather than admitting: they gave me a low grade.

That mindset is behind a lot of good films that record the hero or heroine of the story proving to be a success because they moved from low to high in their life passageway. Few films achieve success if they depict the central character of a film in a downward spin, ending in disaster or failure.

True though this be, many of us carry the burden of failures in our lives. They may not be obvious to others. In our youth we had dreams of successes in what we set out to achieve: happy marriages, lucrative business ventures, children of whom we could be proud, fine reputations, the house of our dreams, early retirement followed by the pursuit of enriching past-times about which we had always dreamed, associations with the rich and famous, reputations gaining us access to the pinnacles of power and prestige. But, instead we may wake up each morning facing a day in which we have to drag ourselves from morning to night: faltering marriages, troubled children, collapsing business ventures, failing health, distrust from among colleagues, constantly being overlooked in the arena of promotions, being the butt of jokes, disdain among collaborators, reputation for being a loser, etc.

Early dreams of being climbers, that is, those who have effortlessly moved from the lower echelons of life upward on a constant climb toward goals that I have pursued all my life, thrill and excite us. EXCELSIOR! has been a dream to be achieved. Who would not want that to be emblazoned on our life story! The counterpart of that, of course, is LOSER. To be regarded in this way is a dampener difficult to bear outwardly, and inwardly depressing and deflating. Undoubtedly many suicides terminate the lives of those enshrouded with a constant sense of their inability to escape the sense of being enclosed in a hole in the ground from which no escape is possible.

It makes an interesting comparison to present a counter situation in which the dynamic of upward and downward is changed from downward to upward, and presented as movement from upward to downward. As depressing as some of the above description appears, at least the theme of upward and onward pervades the description of the scene presented. But there’s another way of describing movement between down and up, in which the predominant mindset is from upward to downward. Using the terms found in the title above, there is also the experience, less frequently experienced, thankfully, that might be suggested in these terms: From riches to rags. It would be the contrary of the situation just described, where the motion from rags to riches is the dominant driving force, and instead plays out as a downward, sinking sensation of moving from riches to rags.

In this setting, one comes into this world with a silver spoon in his/her mouth, where all of the elements making for success, are at hand, so that a high-energy effort at reaching out to achieve and acquire the building blocks of success are already at hand, but, through unforeseen events, such as the Great Depression in 1929 and the succeeding decade, calamitous losses befell the makers and shakers of society, leaving them and their families deprived of all their assets. They became “losers” of all the benefits they owned—property, financial instruments, lives of leisure—and found themselves at the bottom of the upward ladder toward success, and inexperienced in the struggles needed to move upward.

So the question is presented to us: what is the more devastating experience to undergo: to move from rags to riches, or from riches to rags? And though the more common sequence is the former alternative, instances of the latter are not lacking. And should we ask ourselves: which is the more difficult situation to sustain (even though each scenario contains the same elements, but in a differing sequence), the answer seems obvious.

This leads us to the figure of Jesus Christ, and to the unique experience He underwent: from that of heaven itself, downward (so to speak) to a penurious life in this world of ours, followed by a brief but highly successful three year period of untold success, followed by a calamitous ending in shame and ignominy, but concluding with an unprecedented upward movement into His heavenly home. How do we understand His “life”: from rags to riches, or from riches to rags, or might it be both? Do our lives bear any resemblance to this?

Danny & Annie

Every once in a while, albeit, not very often, I hear or see something that leaves me speechless. “Danny & Annie” is that something. I thank Troy from the Chicago Center on Halsted for introducing me to this five-minute video, which I will never forget and wish to share with you.

This video comes from Story Corps founded by Dave Isay, (the recipient of the 2015 TED Prize) in October of 2003. It’s mission is to:

…preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell 2015 survey of 600 National Public Radio (NPR) listeners, reported that they were better able to understand people with different backgrounds,  people with disabilities or serious illness. Thank you Dave Isay and all of your membership as well as your donors and storytellers for bringing the world a much-needed tool for creating understanding.


In a 2015 survey of 600 National Public Radio (NPR) listeners, 88% reported that they were better able to understand people with different backgrounds, and 96% reported they were better able to understand people with disabilities or serious illness.

To find out how you can get involved telling your story or interviewing a friend or family member click here. Thank you Dave Isay and all of your membership as well as your donors and storytellers for bringing the world a much-needed tool for creating understanding.



Never Say Die!

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Everyday I hear about someone or something being abandoned, dogs, cats, churches, refugees, yes, and even children. Is there any worse feeling than that of being abandoned? I don’t think so, at least not for me.

In Theaster Gates, March 2015 TED Talk above, you’ll hear a plan for making something out of close to nothing, of taking what others have abandoned and bringing it back to life. Many people are doing this today, but Gates adds one very important element, that of involving the people already living in that neighborhood, awakening in them hope.

James Martin, S.J. editor at large of America Magazine in his February 15 article titled My God, My God, tells of Jesus who took the raw materials of his time and place forming them into a literally history changing moment. Then on the cross, he cries, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” My God, My God, why have you abandoned me (MK 15:33-34) Fr. Martin explains that while many think this was actually a prayer of hope and trust in the Father, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that Jesus truly did feel abandoned, just as we do at times. It’s this understanding of Jesus that draws me to him.

So what to do when we feel abandoned? We could:

  • Follow Theaster Gates method of working were we find ourselves with the people and resources we find at our disposal. 
  • Learn to see with the eyes of Faith, albeit not an easy choice. 
  • Look for the beauty in simple gifts.


Risk It! Tell Your Story

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

For myself, I don’t believe I’ve learned any more important skill in my 70 plus years than that of being able to tell my story, a story that is filled with challenges as well as successes (crosses and resurrections in Christian terms). Before I learned that skill, I was isolated and afraid, although if you asked me then, I would have sincerely denied any such a state. I needed to take the risky step of sharing my story in order to learn that truth.

Elyn Saks has shared her story, a terrifyingly horrendous struggle with schizophrenia. You may very well have seen it. Her June 2012 TED talk has generated almost five million views. Wow! As I listen to her tell her story, I can’t help but identify with her fears of being different, of being shunned and marginalized.  I marvel at her willingness and ability to tell her story and wonder at how she has not only survived but also become extremely successful in the eyes of most of us. She credits that to her many close friends, family and great doctors.

Most of us I suppose will never get the opportunity to tell our story at TED. Most of us I further suspect, wouldn’t want to, but there are other ways. Khaldiya, a 17 year old refugee living in Jordon tells her story through film, a skill she learned as a child in Syria. Her video is featured in the New York Times Op-Docs January 27, 2016  Another Kind of Girl. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself living as a refugee in a strange land (her cross). Her ability to accept her situation in combination with her learned video skills lead to a positive life (resurrection) where I believe many of us would find resentment, futility and yes death.

Three simple actions to help in choosing life:

  • Seek opportunities to tell your story and then risk doing it. 
  • Listen to others tell their story and see how you are the same. 
  • Surround yourself with family and friends by being a good friend.


My Favorite Telling of the Jesus Story

Dave O'Donnell
Dave O’Donnell

The Celtic Cross depicts my favorite representation of the Jesus story. Catholics prefer the cross with the body of Jesus Christ hanging on it, while Protestants prefer a plain cross with no corpus. The cross with the corpus implies the idea of example. The plain cross suggests there is room for you to see yourself there.

The Celtic Cross has many images on its face implying we all have a cross we are burdened with. At the intersection where the beams meet in the center is the circle of life that surrounds and intersects the cross members. This suggests to me that life’s embrace of my cross is at the center of my life, and is essential to my salvation story.

Tweaking Our Story?

How are humans different from chimpanzees? Are stories really important? Do you know the most successful story ever told? What story will answer the biggest question of the 21st. Century? What is the biggest question of the 21st. Century. Yuval Noah Harari suggests some answers to these questions and more in this fascinating TED Talk.

I think these are important questions for Passionist Partners. We’ve always known the importance of story and for many years people have listened to the story of the cross and have found hope. Does that story have relevance for 21st century peoples? Millennials (18 to 30 year olds) will be living the majority of their lives in this century. Are they listening to the story of the cross? Does the story need to be tweaked?

Pray and Work–That’s What it’s All About

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

The cross can happen even in the life of a child younger than three years old. If you doubt that, then I dare you to watch Noy Thrupkaew’s TED selection for today’s post. I think it might change your mind. As I listened to Noy’s presentation I recalled reading Harville Hendricks who postulates in his Imago Therapy that we spend a great deal of our life grappling with our childhood issues. We even choose our friends and intimate partners based upon this inner drive.


Noy discovered this in her life when she ended up in therapy. What she did with this realization is the story of the cross and resurrection today. Yes, as she says, it’s messy and unfinished. More importantly, she’s begun the task we all have of transforming our lives, and by doing this transforming the lives of all those around us.


In his Encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis recounts the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western Monasticism, who eventually summed up his Rule of Life in two words, Ora et Labora (pray and work). Reflecting on Noy’s talk as well as my own work experience, I think maybe the problem with our 21st Century American way of life is we’ve entirely left our the first of these, prayer, and completely vilified the second, work. I think we could all benefit by prioritizing the prayer and work in our lives. I love what Pope Francis says regarding work:


Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.

(Francis, Pope [2015-06-22]. ENCYCLICAL LETTER LAUDATO SI’: On care for our common home: Green encyclical on the environment. [Kindle Locations 958-959]. . Kindle Edition.)”