Have you ever read about the punishment of being tarred and feathered? Well, I sort of volunteered for it. Not with tar and feathers, but with glue-like pine sap and everything that I touched or that dared to touch me: leaves, pine needles, flakes of bark, soil, mosquitoes, and flies. The sun and humidity made the forest seem like a sauna, even under the towering trees. I was working shirtless in a shaft of filtered light, stripping off the bark of a 60-foot log. Straddling it, hands slippery from sweat, I pulled hard with my drawknife, producing long sticky coils of shavings.
Looking at the huge pile of hand-cut logs before me, I doubted I’d have this house built before winter. The logs needed to season once they were peeled, so they wouldn’t shrink and crack after I hoisted them into place. It was spring going into summer and it was already as hot as August. I wondered if every day was going to be like this one. At that moment, I didn’t want to think about how I was going to accomplish all of this singlehanded.
I sat on the logs for a bite of lunch. My mind began drifting off to other promises I’d made, other commitments of the past I’d failed at keeping. Would this become another of those casualties? What was my word really worth? I looked at the huge mountain of brush, the chopped-off limbs, and the gaping hole I’d cut into this sylvan paradise, and my conscience bit me nastily. The tar and feathers were also in my mind, drawing sticky memories of past failure. Dismissing them, I grabbed my axe and drawknife and went back to work, reminding myself that, like sand in an hourglass, the time would pass anyway. The house was only going to be built one axe strike at a time. No one was going to rescue me from my commitment.
I recalled the story of an ancient warrior who landed his troops on an enemy shoreline. He pointed to the direction they’d come from and to the mountainous land ahead. “One is the past and the other is the future. One has already been known and the other lies unknown.” Then, pointing at the ships, he commanded, “Burn the ships, for we’ll not be coming back this way! We will return home victorious or we shall not return at all!” Character is formed by commitment.
The wood chips piled up and the logs also went up as the summer made its way to fall and fall into winter.
Like I said, the time would pass anyway. It was now a cold winter’s day with the makings of the season’s first blizzard. I was standing between the floor sills and hewing them flat, and I couldn’t feel my fingers any longer. The snow was stinging my face and my beard was full of ice. I smiled, looking up through the open rafters at the stormy sky, and thought, “You can’t beat me now, you know?” The wind howled back at me. I laughed. I had long since burned the ships. The big flakes were trying to put out the fire as I reached for the pot and filled my cup. Holding the precious liquid brought the feeling back into my fingers. I laughed again. “Blow as you may, you’ll never dampen the fire of my commitment, for adversity can never make my heart grow cold!”
Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe what I just described took place in the ‘70s. It’s not what you accomplish as much as what happens to you in the process. Our character is forged by our commitments, by the promises we make and keep to ourselves. It’s a trust you establish with yourself that you vow not to violate. A commitment is a vibrational promise that you also make with the universe. You sign this with the passion of your heart and send it into the ethers. Now all you need to do is honor it with a strong follow-through, and the universe will shower you with blessings. Break the agreement, and it has a way of breaking you by destroying character. Honor the agreement, and it will build character.
What happens to you and how you handle your commitments are the same thing. Honor them, and you will forge your character as surely as some mighty sculptor chipping away all the traits that no longer serve you.
Reflections from Turtle Lake,