3 key lessons my sister with Down syndrome taught me about life

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Looking back on my life and career as a CEO, I can say I’ve had a great number of successes. I’ve been able to lead in ways that made a genuine difference and can put my family first. Some of that’s just a matter of being fearless and working hard. But much of it is because I had an amazing older sister, Beth, with Down syndrome. She taught me three lessons that have had a profound, positive influence on the way I approach the world and life. Those lessons continue to shape my outlook and behavior, and they can do the same for you. 

1. Kindness 

If anybody ever lived by Robin Williams’ advice to “be kind, always,” it was Beth. She was totally unselfish, to the point where if you told her you were hungry, she’d happily offer you some of her chicken.   

3 key lessons my sister with Down syndrome taught me about life

Robin Williams during 10th Annual Sonoma Valley Film Festival Gala – Arrivals at Sonoma Town Plaza in Sonoma, California, United States.
(Photo by Albert Chau/FilmMagic)

Beth didn’t discriminate with her be-a-helper attitude, either. When I was younger, she supported my love of sports by attending all my games. That was touching enough, and I appreciated having her there. 

Because she came to every single event, everybody on the team got to know her, too. She’d stand outside the locker room, and instead of just giving me a high five, she’d high-five every player we had. Then, to top it off, she’d high-five the players on the other team the same way.  

To Beth, there wasn’t a “this team” or “that team.” Everybody deserved fun. Everybody deserved encouragement. So she gave it, no strings attached. Kindness always trumped competition. It taught me not to withhold help or support from anybody and to remember the value of treating people like human beings just because that’s what they are. 

3 key lessons my sister with Down syndrome taught me about life

Beth and Brendan Keegan. Beth attended all of her brother’s games. 

2. Unconditional love 

I think most of us have some relationships that are more conditional than others. Our kids probably get the best deal. We love them the deepest, even when they’re not particularly pleasant.  

In this context, Beth wasn’t socially blind. She could tell if someone was being mean; unfortunately, they often were. Whereas I instinctively wanted to confront the people who were cruel to her, she never got angry. In her eyes, we were all at the you’re-my-kid level. 

3 key lessons my sister with Down syndrome taught me about life

The Keegan family — Beth and Patrick with Brendan in back.

It was virtually impossible for her to look at somebody who’d mistreated her and be upset with them because she didn’t believe they had to do anything to earn her affection. She loved freely regardless of anybody’s behavior and treated everyone that way. It completely influences how open and forgiving I try to be to this day. 

3. Gratitude and appreciation 

When Beth and I were younger, space was tight at home, so I had to share a room with her until around ninth grade. Like a lot of teenagers probably would, I grumbled about it. My family managed to make me my own area down in our basement, but at the same time, I was busy noticing what other people my age had. I grew a pretty good envy tree. 

My sister Beth loved freely regardless of anybody’s behavior and treated everyone that way. It completely influences how open and forgiving I try to be to this day. 

Through that, Beth’s life was like the movie “Groundhog Day” in many ways. She kept her routine, right down to having some chocolate ice cream every night. But she never took a single bowl for granted. 

3 key lessons my sister with Down syndrome taught me about life

She didn’t care what she wore — she was just grateful she had clothes. She started every single morning happy about all of the everyday stuff. And despite any limits there really might have been, she always believed she would have a fantastic day and a fantastic life. 

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Some people are more like Beth and recognize how much they’ve got relatively easily. But many of us still have fuzzy vision about it. We tend to focus on whether what we’re getting in life feels fair. Beth didn’t always get “fair.” Not even . But she focused on whether she had what was really needed, not on what she deserved or wanted, and she was happy. Watching her, I eventually learned not to grumble so much. I have plenty to be grateful for and appreciate if I only choose to see it.  

We all do.  

Keep perspective with a single question 

Right now, the world is in a sort of paradox. We’re constantly told we have innate worth, to be kind and that love has no price. But we’re also told — especially through the “perfect” lives people show on social media — that the world isn’t safe, and we can never rest because there’s something better we need to have.  

3 key lessons my sister with Down syndrome taught me about life

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Somehow, though, Beth didn’t get lost or confused in the noise of this massive contradiction. She held onto ego-free optimism like it didn’t require any effort. 

That’s how I want to be, too. Every day, I ask myself, “What would Beth do?” and face the fact that being happy is a matter of perspective. I can reframe what’s hard or ugly and choose kindness, unconditional love and gratitude. Like my sister, you can, too. 

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