When my wife and I went to visit our son in Wyoming last year, he was anxious to show us the beauty of the mountains that are a short drive from the University of Wyoming campus. Up there, at about 10,000 feet, are his favorite fishing lake and places that he likes to hike. We had seen pictures, but were excited to witness the beauty he had told us about.
In October in Laramie, anything you want to do outdoors is at the mercy of the weather. When we left town, it was bright and sunny. By the time we reached the mountains, it was snowing and blowing, and the mountains were obscured by clouds and a heavy layer of fog. On top of that, the roads turned treacherous about half-way up the mountain. Since we couldn’t move the clouds or clear the roads, we turned around and headed back, never being able to see the great vistas we hoped to see.
Though the excursion didn’t yield the results we wanted, we didn’t let that damper the enjoyment of being together as a family. We chose to make the most of our circumstances, rather than let something as uncontrollable as Mother Nature get us down.
Mother Nature can be a formidable foe, but sometimes, we can move clouds, and inexplicably, we don’t.
That happened recently in our house on the morning of my daughter’s first day of her senior year of high school. My wife had an elaborate breakfast planned for my daughter and two of her classmates who had spent the night, so she woke up early to prepare, only to discover that our refrigerator had abruptly quit without the courtesy of a two-week notice. That event cast a negative cloud that hung over our home throughout breakfast and well after Kelly and her friends left for school, and though we could have moved it, we let it obscure the beauty of what should have been a cherished memory.
It’s easy to do that – too easy to do that. We drive to work on a beautiful day, and instead of noticing and appreciating that beauty, we stew about the guy who cut us off in traffic. We gather to celebrate a birthday, but we don’t enjoy it as much as we should because a guest didn’t show or we didn’t have enough cake. We let our frustration over a long wait at a restaurant dominate a night that we’ll never again have.
Why do we do these things? Are we determined to sabotage our own happiness? Can we not separate the wheat from the chaff in our minds? When I let negativity crowd out beauty, it’s because I lost control of my thoughts.
Controlling your thoughts sounds simple, and it typically is in calm, pleasant times, but when outside factors, like a fridge full of slowly rotting food emerge, it’s not so simple. Obviously, we couldn’t completely ignore the quandary that the fridge forced upon us, but we didn’t need to let it overtake what should have been a morning more memorable for its significance in our family life.
Instead of pushing back on negative emotions like anxiety, anger and frustration, we ceded our morning to them, and in doing so, tarnished a memory. It’s all too easy to let this happen, and even to be unaware that it’s happening.
When challenging circumstances like this evoke negative emotions, we must remind ourselves that we have options in dealing with them. Unlike the weather, our emotions are under our control, and we should use them to move clouds when we can.
It’s been more than a year since my wife and I sent our firstborn to a university 500 miles away. As expected, it’s been a year of adjustment, and though we still haven’t quite figured things out, we’re learning.
Despite my sophomore status, a couple months ago, at her son’s graduation reception, a mother of a new graduate asked me if I had any advice for someone about to send her new graduate away to college. This wouldn’t be much of a blog post if I didn’t.
Be glad the kid is gone. I’m pretty sure that my parents don’t want me living in their basement. After my first and only college summer at home, I was really sure that my dad was glad when August came around. Be thankful that your kid has the ambition to leave the security of home. It’s the first step toward true independence.
Speaking of my dad, have some perspective. When my grandparents saw my dad leave for Vietnam, the best that they could hope for was to see him home and healthy in a year. During that year, they couldn’t send him a text or check his Twitter feed to see how he was doing. And since they couldn’t even talk over the phone, they never heard his voice. Thinking about that makes the 500 miles between me and my son seem somewhat trivial.
Take advantage of technology. If you have a kid graduating from high school, you’re old enough to remember limited communication technology from your own early adulthood years – calling cards and making your long-distance calls when the rates were lowest. E-mail and social media weren’t even options. Don’t act like it’s still the 80’s or early 90’s. You’ll want to give him some space, but a funny, unexpected text from home can brighten his day. Encourage him to do the same thing. Modern communication condenses miles.
Realize that he isn’t your clone. Hopefully, you’ve raised a better version of yourself. I’m forever grateful that my children weren’t set on building wisdom through ill-advised decision-making, like I was. Just because you struggled to avoid temptations in college doesn’t mean that your children will.
Assume the positive. Most of things we worry about never happen, and we waste time and energy thinking about them. Very rarely will you know where your college kid is, who he’s with or what he’s doing. Don’t allow your imagination to fill in those gaps with your worries. Assume that he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.
Understand that now is the time to reap the rewards of your parenting. Raising children is a tough, but rewarding job. If you’ve done it correctly, by the time your kid graduates, the hard parts will be behind you. Leave them behind you. Constantly trying to control and guide your children is an unnecessary use of energy that can be better directed elsewhere.
Lastly, see #1. This is a time to celebrate and to congratulate yourself on getting this far as a parent. Though you’re likely going to miss your kid more than you can imagine, be happy that he’s at this exciting stage in his life. This is when many things come together. He’ll likely meet his future wife very soon. He’ll add to his list of life-long friends, and he’ll start to zero in on a career. None of that is possible without letting him go.
If you would have asked me in 1988 how I would arrive at my high school reunion thirty years later, I would have offered some grand vision that involved wealth and excess. I certainly wouldn’t have said bald and walking with a cane.
Though I am blessed with an incredible life and a family beyond my wildest dreams, life hasn’t worked out for me in the exact way that I originally thought it would, and that’s OK. Life works out in the way that it’s supposed to, and it has no particular allegiance to our plans. It’s up to us to learn from and adapt to the realities we encounter.
If we pay attention and do things correctly, we stand a very good chance of being successful at life. You notice that I didn’t say simply “successful,” because many of us attach far-fetched definitions to that word, and when we fall short, we feel unsuccessful. The concept of success should inspire us to reach higher, not push us into a hole. Unfortunately, when we attach immature ideals to our concept of success, we often trigger regret and melancholy when we don’t achieve those ideals.
Among many other things, my grandfather taught me that being successful at life is almost always attainable, regardless of the advantages or disadvantages we’re blessed with. You just need to snag the blessings that come your way and then nurture them. For him, being successful at life meant having a big, thriving family, which was something that he wasn’t born into.
My grandfather’s mother died when he was four years old, when most of his older siblings had already left the house. His father did the best he could, but when the Great Depression hit Central Nebraska, there weren’t enough resources to support my grandfather and his next older brother. Realizing this, at the ages of 14 and 16, my grandfather and his brother dropped out of school and headed to a life of labor in the sugar beet fields of Western Nebraska, stowing away on trains during their trip.
A few years later, he returned with $700 that he managed to save by living frugally and working hard. With that, he started farming. Eventually, he met my grandmother, and started a family that grew to eight children and 23 grandchildren. He never earned much money, but he lived a comfortable life by prioritizing family over possessions and status. I can’t imagine a rich man being any happier than my grandfather was with his family-focused life.
I’m slowly turning into my grandfather. Instead of what I drive or where I live, the family I’ve built with my wife is my biggest source of pride and fulfillment. It’s not that I gave up on my financial goals – I like travel and hunting too much to get complacent – but if everything stayed just like it is right now, I would feel successful at life.
That’s a change from where I was thirty years ago and probably even five years ago, and it’s a change that I’d like to attribute to maturity and recognizing what’s truly important in life. We don’t need to earn more than our friends or to have bigger houses and fancier cars than them, in order to prove to ourselves and others that we are successful. We just need to do the best we can with our blessings.
No, I didn’t drive a Mercedes to my high school reunion, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. No one noticed, and my 18-year-old self wasn’t there to impress.
Last month, I wrote about my inspiring afternoon with a young man struggling with a progressive illness. Seeing his struggle, but more important, his positive attitude, inspired me to shrug off my own challenges. If he could stay positive, why shouldn’t I?
Finding inspiration in seemingly less fortunate people is delicate and can be counter-productive, if we don’t balance it with appreciation. Without appreciation, it’s not really inspiration at all. It’s simply pity.
Think about the last homeless person or panhandler you saw. Did it make you uncomfortable? Did you look away and try to block the image from your memory? Or did you move your blessings to the forefront of your thoughts? Most of us, myself included, shield ourselves from dwelling on sad scenes like this, when we really should be using them to appreciate our blessings.
People with visible handicaps get this a lot. Strangers glance at us and then look away from or through us. It’s dehumanizing, but I get it, because that’s the way I look at homeless people. It’s easier and safer that way.
There are much better ways to address our discomfort when encountering someone we believe is less fortunate than we are.
- Look past their disadvantages.
- Don’t assume that they’re helpless and want your pity.
- Gain appreciation for your blessings through their perspective.
Last week, a guy at the gym was complaining about how hot it was in the gym. Naturally, I spun his complaint a positive direction and told him how I used to work out in an un-air-conditioned gym located above a basketball floor in the North Carolina heat and humidity. “This is nothing compared to that,” I said.
“You would say that,” he said. “Is there anything that can keep you down?” He went on to tell me that he and many others there find inspiration in my tenacity. He said that seeing me push through my struggles makes him feel guilty when he skips work-outs or doesn’t put forth much effort. “Not that I think that you have it that bad,” he tried to qualify, but I interrupted him and thanked him for his kind words.
It’s hard to know to deal with the struggles of others, but try. You can learn a lot. Some of the most inspiring and optimistic people bear struggles that seem unimagineable, and through these struggles, they teach us perspective that shines light on our blessings.
I found inspiration in Ty’s attitude. His handicap was just a backdrop that amplified that positive attitude that I’ll always remember. I didn’t look at him and tell myself: at least I don’t have it that bad. I listened to him and learned that a positive attitude is possible and powerful, even in extremely challenging situations.
As we wheeled away in opposite directions from our one and only meeting, I was thankful, not because I thought I had it better than Ty. I was thankful that I had the opportunity to grow as a person and to take those lessons forward with me to share with others.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that people walk through my life with purpose, but that purpose isn’t always immediately obvious. Often, I must wait until the person is a memory before I understand their role in my journey.
I met Ty only once and more than a year ago, during the final day of the state wrestling tournament in 2017. My son was wrestling for a championship that afternoon, so I was more distracted than usual with emotion, family and friends. I was much too preoccupied with my own thoughts to meet someone new and interesting who could teach me something. At least, that’s what I thought.
Ty and I were in the handicapped section, since neither of us was good with stairs. Since each ticketholder is limited to one companion seat, handicapped seating in arenas can be lonely, if you’re not open to meeting other people. If demand is high, they kick out the companions, leaving the ticketholder surrounded by strangers. That happened to me for the semi-finals the night before. Fortunately, they didn’t kick out my companion, my dad, that day. While the rest of my family and friends were in another section, I was left with my dad and Ty to experience a day I’ll never forget.
While I use my wheelchair to make long treks more comfortable and convenient, Ty was confined to an electric wheelchair. I soon learned that muscular dystrophy put Ty in the chair, and that it was a progressive disease. He wasn’t shy about sharing this with me, and he didn’t tell me that to get sympathy.
You don’t find a lot of vanity or self-pity in the handicapped section. Most of us are beyond that. Ty was way beyond that. He freely shared his life story with me and my dad, but not in an uncomfortable or intrusive way. In fact, the chair and his health challenges were a small part of our conversation. He mostly talked about his love of wrestling, racing, hunting and fishing, and he did it with a genuine smile and passion.
He had an eager audience in my father and me, since we shared many of the same passions, and our conversation was a welcome diversion from the nervous anticipation of my son’s upcoming match. By the time my son was on the mat, I considered Ty a friend. He was among the first to congratulate me when my son won the championship that afternoon.
Before we parted, we became Facebook friends. I was eager to follow his hunting and other adventures, and was able to do that over the next several months. He had a girlfriend, job and zest for life that might surprise those who didn’t know him. In contrast to some able-bodied people on social media, I never saw him complain or feel sorry for himself.
Last month, it occurred to me that turkey hunting season had begun, and I hadn’t seen any of Ty’s hunting posts. During last year’s turkey season, he documented the many hours he spent in a blind in his quest to bag a turkey, and by doing so, he made me feel a little guilty about my impatience in my own turkey hunting. I assumed that he was hunting hard again, and that I had just missed his updates.
Unfortunately, I didn’t miss his updates. When I went to his Facebook page, I learned that he was killed in a car accident earlier this year. I was sad that his journey was cut short, but thankful for the afternoon we spent together and the way his memory helped me that day.
I discovered Ty’s fate in the middle of a challenging week that saw me lose two big recruiting deals and knock another hole in my drywall with a fall in the bathroom. The stench of bad luck seemed to stick with me no matter how hard I tried to scrub it off, and that had me feeling a little down and defeated
Though I didn’t know it, my subconscious told me that I needed to think of Ty that week, especially his tenacity and positive attitude, even when things were tough. How foolish I would feel and how small my problems would seem if we were back in section 109 in the CenturyLink Center, and I was trying to tell Ty how my week was going.
I didn’t expect a chance meeting to help me deal with challenges fifteen months later, but it did. Life can be amazing like that, if we pay attention.
Just outside my office is a golf course that provides amusement and distraction during my work day. When the windows are open, I can hear golfers smack the ball. Occasionally, I hear them use interesting combinations of four-letter words to convey their enthusiasm for their performance. I’ve even heard a window or two break.
Though few golfers impress me, I admire all of them, because they are doing what they should be doing – enjoying the opportunity to golf.
I used to be one of them. In fact, I was a varsity golfer on my high school team, mostly because there weren’t very many good high school golfers in my hometown. When I competed, it was best to start at the bottom of the results, if you wanted to find my score. For a while, I thought that I was the inspiration for the term “handicapped scoring.”
In an odd twist of fate, that forgettable golf career earned me a job coaching high school golf, when I graduated from college and became a teacher. Just a few years removed from stinking up the courses in Central Nebraska, I was leading high school golfers, most of them far better golfers than I ever was. Due to no fault of my own, those teams were largely successful, mostly because I was sufficiently self aware to get out of the way. That and the fact that I never drove the van into the ditch were my largest contributions to that success.
Though I was never very good at it, I enjoyed being around golf. When I played and coached, I had an occasional good shot or even a good round, but I almost always had a good time. I envisioned golf being a part of my life for many years to come. Like my grandfather, who didn’t start golfing until he retired and then was never very good, I saw myself golfing into my 80s. Unfortunately, I barely made it into my 30s.
I got busy with kids in my late 20s and early 30s, and didn’t golf regularly. Some years, I didn’t golf at all. I probably could have and should have, but it felt selfish to leave my wife at home with chaos. When I did make it back to the golf course, my body no longer bent and moved like it used to. I backed off and resolved to work on improving my weaknesses in the hope that I could still swing a club. A few months later, it was no better. In fact, it was even more difficult to make contact with the ball, let alone direct it in a safe direction, and the very motion of swinging hurt. I was done.
Like I do with pretty much everything out of my reach, I blocked golf out of my mind. I’ve learned that it’s pointless to dwell on things that are no longer an option. We’re all going to get there eventually. I just got there more quickly. I tell myself that a lot.
But sometimes I don’t listen. Lately, when I catch myself watching the golfers outside my office, those old golf fantasies cross my mind. One day, I even stood up from my chair and attempted a swing without a club. I wanted to see what that felt like, hoping that maybe I could find a way to get back out there. I took one swing that probably didn’t look much like a swing and nearly fell over, much like the last time I tried that on an actual golf course with an actual club. It wasn’t going to happen.
I share this story not to make you feel sorry for me – I don’t even feel sorry for myself – but to make you think about the things that you should be doing and aren’t. I see way too many people wasting opportunities far too often or making excuses that result in lost opportunities.
Perhaps you’re postponing travel, because everything isn’t perfect, when perfection really isn’t necessary. I’m proof that the opportunity you assumed would always be there sometimes isn’t there when you expect it to be. Can you live with the regret of missing it?
Maybe you’re frustrated that age has reduced your physical prowess, and because you aren’t what you once were, you quit trying. Don’t do that. Reduced physical prowess is better than no physical prowess.
If I could travel back in time to 1999, I would make the time to golf more. It probably wouldn’t affect my ability to play now, but I would be satisfied that I squeezed everything I could out of the game before it was taken from me. Do yourself a favor and try to live your life in such a way that you don’t have the same kind of regret.
I could stand to be more empathetic. I’ve suspected that for a while now, but it became more obvious this week, when snow kept me from the gym.
More often than not, Midwesterners do a good job of clearing sidewalks and parking lots after snow storms, but my gym is an exception. The owners and/or management who took control about a year ago seem to have adopted the Southern response to winter precipitation, i.e. leave it alone and let the sun take care of it. If they do happen to use a shovel, they clear the most meager of paths. They recently cleared a narrow path next to the building by the handicapped parking, leaving a ridge of snow between the parking spots and the cleared area. They might as well have saved the effort – there aren’t very many skilled high-jumpers or hurdlers where I park.
Detachment like that leaves me shaking my head and asking questions. Don’t they understand that gym patrons, particularly those who park where I do, need a cleared surface in order to enter the gym safely? If they spent a day in my shoes, they would realize how dangerous slippery surfaces can be. There’s the catch: they’ve never been in my shoes, and because of that, they likely lack the empathy that an experience like that would provide.
It’s hard to be as empathetic as we should be, because we rarely understand the full extent of most challenges. We look derisively at the mother using food stamps or the scowling teenager at the mall, because we’re so sure that we’re superior or could do better in their shoes. Yet, we don’t know their entire story. If we did, we would probably be embarrassed by our attitude. Many times, our judgment isn’t as sound as we believe it to be.
Before age and the wear and tear of my awkward gait took its toll on my body, I often scoffed at the numerous handicapped parking stalls at gyms. Are there really that many handicapped people in a gym, I thought to myself. If I could park in a regular spot and walk in, so too should almost anyone else. I learned the hard way just how wrong I was.
That’s not where the irony ends. My experiences with a physical handicap occasionally give me an unfounded sense of superiority, especially in areas of effort. If I could do it, why can’t they? In thinking like this, I discount all of my other advantages and likely discount the challenges of those I judge. There’s almost always an untold story.
I was at a high school basketball game a few years back, and the volunteer keeping the clock was struggling. It was a tight game where every play mattered, and this poor guy kept screwing up the time. He’d either stop the clock too soon or too late, and the bleachers were full of people eager to point out his mistakes. More than once, the game had to be stopped to allow for a scoreboard adjustment. I had a similar experience in the same role at a youth football game, so I could empathize with his situation. I silently wished that those sitting around me had such empathy, as I watched him get flustered.
None of us knew that he had brain cancer and would die after a three-year struggle. I’m not even sure if the cancer was affecting him at the time or if he had even been diagnosed. When I learned of the diagnosis though, I immediately thought back to that game and wondered how many boo-birds regretted their behavior that night.
A lack of empathy toward my sidewalk challenges at the gym made me look internally at my own shortcomings in that area. Don’t wait until something like this happens to you. Strive to be more empathetic. It can’t hurt.