Harry McAvoy: Creating purpose from life’s lemons

By  Harry McAvoy
  • September 13, 2019

Way back in Grade 10 religion class at Michael Power High School, Sr. Virginia had us read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In this memorable book about the Holocaust, Frankl writes about why some of his fellow prisoners survived the concentration camps, while many didn’t. 

In the book he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche as saying, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” 

My recollection of Frankl’s story is this: For some, the “why” was so they could live to tell of the horror they witnessed, for others it was to return to loved ones, and still others, it was revenge.  Over the years I have cherished Nietzsche’s wisdom as a reminder to live with purpose. 

Many months into mild cognitive impairment, those words returned to me. I wondered what would be my “why”? Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I decided I could witness to God’s goodness and love, and write and speak about how faith is helping me live with memory loss.    

During the annual ShareLife appeal in the Archdiocese of Toronto, I was invited to speak in a parish and share my experience at Sunday Masses. I was grateful because it allowed me to share how counselling through Catholic Family Services of Toronto was helping me cope with the fear of what might lie ahead.  These brief speeches emboldened me that I could still deliver a thoughtful message in a compelling manner. 

Around the same time, I contacted The Catholic Register, for which I had written a handful of articles many years ago about being a Catholic husband and father. I wondered whether the journey with memory loss might be of interest. I was invited to submit an article with a “we’ll see” approach. I was pleased I still had the ability to string together words in a way that was meaningful and hopefully bring comfort to those suffering with memory loss or other maladies.   

I then had the opportunity to speak to a young adult group at Marylake, the Augustinian monastery in King City north of Toronto. The promotional poster read, “When life gives you lemons...” and included my smiling face surrounded by about 15 lemons, in full colour, for which I am still being teased. It was a wonderful experience to stand toe to toe with young Catholics and share my story. 

I told them, yes I was dealt a lousy hand, and it hurts, but with God I am confident all things will work for the good. I encouraged them to build their lives on the strongest possible foundation, Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith, because I said, the storms are coming, always coming. 

I also shared tips and perspective that have helped me weather my darker hours. Finally, I encouraged them to learn from their troubles, grow in empathy for the pain of others, and find ways to contribute and serve. 

My new friends were receptive and the good prior wrote afterwards, “They liked it, and your story was a springboard for other’s stories.” I figure if a 60-year-old man with memory issues can spend an evening with young adults sharing God’s love and mercy, and they engage, the Holy Spirit must have been hard at work. 

In October, I will have the opportunity to be part of the Theology of Tap speaker series for young adults through the Office of Catholic Youth in Toronto. 

When Sarah Rodrigues, the associate director of Young Adult Ministry, asked me about a title for the poster, I was stymied. But encouraged by Sarah’s good humour and instincts, I suggested “God’s storyteller, Department of Good News, Heaven.” She liked it, so we have our title.

With all my heart I wish my memory would snap back to normal, but if that is not going to happen, then I pray God will give me the grace and opportunities to continue witnessing. I am also hoping God sustains my sense of humour; I suspect it is easier to be about the common good with a twinkle in your eye, rather than a tear on your cheek. 

(McAvoy has been sharing his journey of dealing with memory loss with Register readers.)

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