Going to a funeral is never fun; however, this past weekend, as I celebrated the life of a man who lived 95 good years, I received a welcome, but unexpected surprise. With the ever-worsening economic news as a backdrop, the triumphs and challenges of my aunt’s father’s extraordinary life reminded me of what really matters in difficult times.
Resilience and perseverance in the face of hardship were consistent themes in the life of David Popper, or “Mr. Popper,” as I knew him growing up. The contrast between how overwhelming his challenges were, and the level of personal and professional success he achieved as a highly-respected U.S. ambassador and diplomat made the lessons in his story even more powerful.
At key points, he could have given up, and no one would have blamed him. But he chose to move forward, regroup and fight on with peaceful, generous determination. Two lessons from his life struck me as particularly relevant for the uncertainty many people face today:
Lesson #1: In hard times, it’s imperative to keep moving forward no matter how difficult the circumstances because they will turn around. Persistence and resilience were the keys to his success:
• In his early twenties, newly-married and getting ready to attend graduate school, his father was killed in a car accident. As the oldest, he felt he needed to put his plans on hold indefinitely to care for his mother and three younger siblings. He wouldn’t get the chance to begin his diplomatic training and career until well after World War II.
• When he was at the State Department, Joseph McCarthy accused him of being a communist. Even though all of his colleagues knew this was a completely unfounded charge, the Secretary of State felt enough pressure from McCarthy that he put Mr. Popper on an unpaid leave of absence for three-months while they prepared for his hearing. Things did not look good.
With three children, no income and the real possibility of having his reputation and career ruined by the false allegations, he didn’t sit back and wait helplessly for the verdict to be delivered. Instead he worked everyday for three months preparing a detailed defense. When he presented his case to the Secretary of State and the panel reviewing the charges, they were so impressed that McCarthy backed down, the formal hearing canceled, and the charges dropped. But that wasn’t the end of it. Although the allegations were dismissed, they would continue to haunt him and risk derailing his career at other points, but each time he fought back and won.
• When he was the Ambassador to Chile during the Pinochet regime, he continued to press the importance of human rights even as Henry Kissinger told him to back off, because the U.S. was secretly supporting the regime for other political purposes in the region (for more details, see his obituary in The Washington Post). While he was always diplomatic and did the job he was asked to do, he was unwilling to compromise his integrity. Many believe he was instrumental is saving countless lives in the process.
Lesson #2: In good times, no matter how successful you are, all that really matters is your integrity, your family and friends, and helping others. One benefit of tough times is that they can reacquaint you to what really matters. And it’s instructive that when asked at the end of his extraordinary life what mattered most, Mr. Popper downplayed most if not all of his academic and professional successes. Instead he focused on his family and how glad he was that he had the opportunity to serve others and make people’s lives better.
David Popper was a man who achieved levels of professional success most of us will never achieve, but he also resolutely endured challenges beyond which most of us will experience. And he did it with dignity and grace. I walked away from the celebration of his life much lighter than when I arrived because his story made me believe that we can not only survive these uncertain times, but we can thrive. The key is perseverance and resilience, no matter how steep the odds. Thank you, Mr. Popper, for the important reminder.
Need some help persevering and cultivating resilience in your own life? Here are some helpful resources I like:
Do you have examples of resilience and perseverance in the face of overwhelming challenges that can remind us all to keep moving forward in uncertain times?