Posts Tagged appreciation

Don’t Wish Away Windshield Time

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I used to dream of the day when I’d no longer need to drive my kids around. Now that it’s almost here, I’ve begun to think about what I am losing.

I’m not only losing early-morning wake-ups and late-night pick-ups; I’m also losing precious time with my children. While I maybe didn’t enjoy driving to and from practices, games and sleep-overs, I was with my children, and I had their attention. We were each other’s captive audience for the few minutes we spent on the road together. It’s harder to get those moments now.

My daughter, my youngest, is now learning to drive. Like her older brother, she will soon have a school permit that will allow her to drive to and from school events. No longer will I be with her when she leaves the house for an early-morning practice or waiting for her when the bus drops her off after an evening event. I have to admit, having my son drive himself for the past two years has been tremendously convenient, and that convenience probably blinded me to what I was missing – time to catch up with my kids, to learn about their activities and interests, to meet their friends.

I made the mistake that many people make – I wished away part of the life I was given.

Wishing away life’s activities is mining for fool’s gold. Unfortunately, by the time we realize this, it’s too late. We might get what we were looking for, but we might wish that we had back what it cost us.

Maybe we’re convinced that we can start enjoying life once the mortgage is paid off and the kids are through college, not realizing that we’ll never get back the time we spent wishing and waiting for those things to happen. Maybe we can’t wait until we can quit our jobs and do something we really like, not realizing that the job we don’t like is setting us up for an opportunity we haven’t even imagined yet. Maybe we’re counting days until our child’s sports season is over, not appreciating all that she is learning from participating.

When my kids were young, I remember thinking that it would be so great to have the entire house to myself for even just a little bit of time. I wouldn’t have to worry about anything or anyone except myself. Now, I often find myself alone in my house, wishing that I was still central to my kids’ lives.

Likewise, I rushed through college, thinking that something better was on the other side. Because I was tired of living on little money, I focused on graduating as quickly as I could – cramming as many credit hours as possible into each semester. When I wasn’t in class, I was working so I could afford all of those credit hours. I was only on campus to attend class, never getting involved in extra-curricular activities that can enrich the college experience.

I achieved my goal of graduating from college in four years, without debt and with a teaching job already lined up, but a year later, I was wishing that I was back in college – that I had spread out my experience and took advantage of unique collegiate opportunities. Like driving my kids around, I was too focused on the destination to enjoy the journey.

Life is like that. As the destination begins to fill our windshield, we also start to see more clearly through the rearview mirror. The sooner we can figure this out, the happier we will be.

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Are You Really Going to Complain about That . . . to Me?

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The typical Facebook feed is a peculiar convergence of people, ideas and weirdness. Mine is no different. When I log on, it’s like I’ve taken a hallucinogenic that allows everyone from my mother’s third cousin to my closest childhood friend to flash pictures and words in front of me with no regard to their importance or my interest in them. If you pay attention, this random nature occasionally yields remarkable juxtapositions that make you back up and think a bit.

That happened the other day. One friend wrote a touching tribute to her husband who had unexpectedly died earlier in the year. In the next post, a different friend complained about her Starbucks order. Taken apart, these two posts are fairly unremarkable, but when paired together, a glaring spotlight shines on the trivial complaint.

The same thing happens in our daily lives. When someone asks us how we’re doing, and we launch into a litany of grievances, we might not be aware of how small and petty we sound, especially if the other party is dealing with something more significant. Imagine complaining about your mild headache to a friend who you didn’t know was on her way to a chemotherapy treatment.

Unfortunately, because complaining is so habitual, we often aren’t even aware that we are complaining. If we backed up and thought about what we are saying, we would probably be embarrassed, and that is what we should do before we complain – back up and think.

I’m trying to teach my children this concept: before you run up to me or anyone else and complain about something, think. First, do I even need to complain? And second, how will my complaint affect the other person and his opinion of me?

Most complaints are stopped in their tracks by the first question. Except in special circumstances, complaining simply isn’t necessary. Complaining is only helpful if it leads to problem-solving. If your doctor asks you where it hurts and how often it hurts, go ahead and complain. It will help him solve your problems. Too many times though, we complain to people who can’t help us and about problems with no solution.

Nebraska, where I live, gives its residents many opportunities to complain about the weather, which is the most pointless of all complaining. Until we figure out how to control the weather, whining about temperature extremes, snow, ice, hail and the like will never lead to problem-solving, so why complain? Unless you are going to move to a more agreeable climate, put on a smile and deal with it.

Complaining about the weather isn’t the only pointless complaint. How often do you hear people complaining about being tired or busy? Often the complaint is just an excuse for poor performance or inconsiderate behavior.

Lastly, complaints negatively impact the energy of human communication and make the complainer significantly less popular. I think of complaints and complainers like mosquitoes at a backyard party. No one wants to be around them. When you hear one buzzing in your ear, you swat it away, and if that doesn’t work, you walk away. Whatever you do, you don’t unleash more of them and ruin everyone’s good time.

If you look hard enough, the world is filled with irksome opportunity, and there are many people ready and willing to point it out. Don’t look for irksome opportunities. Look for opportunities for positivity, and when others can’t see them, don’t hesitate to point them out. Make yourself that cool evening breeze that keeps the mosquitoes away.

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Selling Grand Island to Las Vegas

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The Bellagio in Las Vegas is one of the most opulent places I’ve been fortunate to visit. It’s massive, with more than 4000 rooms, and full of extravagance, from its marble floors to the spectacular water show in front. When I’m there, I feel like I’m in another world. That’s why I was stunned when I saw the Grand Island Nebraska Tenderloin Steak on the menu at Olives, one of Bellagio’s elite restaurants.

I was born and raised about 50 miles from Grand Island, in a small little town without a stoplight, much less a movie theater. During my childhood, Grand Island, population 35,000 at the time, was the big city. It’s where we went to go shopping, to a movie or on some other type of adventure. With its restaurants, movie theaters, miniature golf and roller skating, I felt like I was in another world when we went to Grand Island.

Grand Island is not the Bellagio. It’s not even an island, but according to the waiter I asked in Las Vegas, it’s where the best beef in the world comes from. He didn’t get an argument from me, but I laughed to myself when I thought about how others, who had no other exposure to Grand Island, might think of the city.

The Bellagio hosts visitors from all over the world, not just the United States. Many likely couldn’t find Nebraska on a map. They sure wouldn’t look in the middle of the country when they looked for a grand island. When they read “Grand Island,” what goes through their minds? Does some Japanese guy from Okinawa picture a massive island full of premium beef cattle?

Obviously, the marketing team at Olives intends just that – an idealized image that makes wherever we are and whatever we’re eating or doing feel special. Imagine if we were our own marketing team and did that for ourselves.

Imagine doing your weekly grocery shopping at “Gourmet Heaven,” where tens of thousands of fresh items are available for immediate consumption. The meals you can prepare with the ingredients there are limited only by your imagination. If you still can’t see past the many stocked aisles, think of it from a North Korean’s perspective, where supplies are rationed and resources to purchase are scarce. A North Korean in an American grocery store would have a hard time believing his eyes, yet we go to that same store with a sense of drudgery.

Imagine if you saw your job as an important opportunity to contribute to your organization’s success while working toward your goals, rather than something you have to do five days per week. It might not be your dream job, but it very well could be an important step in your journey to your dream job. Wouldn’t thinking like that make the drive in each morning a little easier?

Imagine going to a child’s game, concert or recital with an appreciation for the opportunity to share a fleeting moment with them. Sure, there are things that you might rather be doing at that moment, but instead of wasting mental energy on regret, invest that energy on enjoying the moment

Imagine marketing your life to yourself. It’s not that hard. It’s really just a matter of creating an optimum image of what we do and where we are, by focusing on the positives. Don’t wait for someone else to do it – sell yourself the Grand Island Nebraska Tenderloin Steak.

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How Are You Driving Through Life?

One of the greatest benefits of being an early riser is beating traffic on my way to the office each morning. Generally, because I am substantially ahead traffic, I don’t have to think too much about driving, as my brain warms up to the day’s tasks. The other day, a truck running a red light changed all of that.

When my son started driving, I taught him to check both directions every time he entered an intersection, even if he has a green light. You can’t assume that people are going to stop for red lights, I told him. They could be texting, drunk, falling asleep or otherwise distracted. It’s a good thing that I heeded my advice that morning.

My light turned green, and as I entered the intersection to turn left, even before I could turn my head to look farther up the road, I caught a flash in the corner of my eye and had just enough time to slam on my brakes before a truck sped past my front bumper. Fortunately, there was no one else in the intersection, because I sat frozen at a complete stop for a moment, making sure that my light was green, and his was red. My hands were shaking, and my heart was racing as I drove on, thinking about what had just happened.

It could have all ended in that intersection. The huge truck never slowed down, and was probably exceeding the 45 MPH speed limit. If I hadn’t hit my brakes or had he been in the lane closest to me, he likely would have nailed my driver’s side door.

Everything that I wanted to do that day, that week, that month, that year – my hopes and aspirations, my worries and concerns – would have been gone. My wife and children were still in bed, and however I left them the night before would have been how I left them permanently. I felt like I was in a life insurance commercial or made-for-TV movie, but this was very real. I had been awakened to my own fragile mortality.

Every day, people are killed in accidents, like the one I narrowly avoided. Every day, many more die from illnesses or even as victims of crime. Our brave men and women in combat zones face this daily. The soldier never knows when he’s tied his boots for the last time.

Like the soldier, many of us never see it coming, and it’s terrifying to think about how quickly our lives can be over or permanently changed. Even if we do everything correctly and carefully, as I was doing that morning, there is virtually no way to be 100 percent safe. That realization can be debilitating, but it shouldn’t keep us at home. A sheltered life is an incomplete life.

Instead, the realization that we’re owed no warning on how much time we have left should heighten our awareness of how we are living our lives. Since this incident, I am much more aware of my surroundings as I drive, but that awareness doesn’t end when I’m in my garage. I am also much more aware of how I am “driving” through life.

Am I like the busy mother rushing her children to school, so focused on a destination that she doesn’t see spring blooming in the roadside bushes? Or, am I like my late grandfather on a Sunday, driving his home county’s gravel roads with the windows rolled down gazing in awe at the only landscape he ever knew?

Likewise, am I cursing life’s detours, instead of seizing on the opportunity to try something new? Do I allow life’s everyday traffic to negatively influence my mood, instead of properly assigning it inconsequential status?

Several days have passed since my intersection experience – several days that could have been taken from me. None of them have been perfect, but all of them were gifts. In fact, the experience itself was a gift – albeit one that I never want to receive again.

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Where I Park, Not Who I Am

I’ve been qualified for a handicapped parking placard for as long as I’ve been able to drive, but I drove for nearly 20 years before I got one. During that time, I’ve watched people with far less challenging disabilities than mine use them, and I’ve heard people with no disability at all boast about using them to get a better parking place. I’ve limped past both.

Friends who went to NASCAR races with me admonished my stubbornness. “Why the hell do we have to park way out here?” they asked. “Because he’s too stubborn to get a handicapped placard,” my wife would answer for me.

I resisted the handicapped placard, because I didn’t see myself as handicapped. Sure, if I paid attention to such things, I would have noticed the obvious, but no one really treated me any differently, so I wasn’t forced to acknowledge the obvious. Ironically, I convinced myself that parking in one of those reserved stalls would alert the world that I had a handicap, as I limped by. Such is the power of self-image.

Obviously, my self-image was overly optimistic, but far too often, self-image is overly pessimistic. We see ourselves as failing before we even try. We feel inferior to others, though we’ve never really looked for our own worth. We become our own worst enemy, because we let doubt and negativity cloud our thinking.

I believe that we often develop negative self-images when we focus on our weaknesses and past failures instead of our strengths and potential. Everyone makes mistakes and has weaknesses. We doom ourselves to negative self-images if we fail to realize that failure and weakness are parts of being normal, and that we need to learn from our past and put it away, while focusing on our strengths and potential.

So, how do we optimize and nurture our self-image?

  1. Develop selective memory. Decide which memories are positive and affirming, and hold onto them. Learn all you can from the negative memories and then throw them away. When I reminisce about college fraternity date parties, I don’t dwell on the five rejections I received for my first date party; instead, I focus on the incredible first date I had a few months later with the lady who would become my wife. (Fortunately, I’m not easily discouraged.)
  2. Feed strengths and starve weaknesses. We often give our weaknesses more attention than they deserve. Sometimes, we even focus on them, to the detriment of our strengths. Discover what you are good at and do more of it.
  3. Blend humility with appreciation. A healthy dose of appreciation puts weaknesses where they belong – out of the spotlight. When you are feeling down, take the time to be thankful for your blessings. This isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always necessary.
  4. Associate with positive people. We all have those people who leave us feeling refreshed. They refuse to let us wallow in self-pity and help us direct our thoughts to positive areas. Spend more time with them and less time with the whiners and those who encourage whining.
  5. Eliminate negative self-talk. Most of us have a silent, but active internal dialogue that we’re often only faintly aware of. Stop and think about it. What are you telling yourself about yourself? If our self-talk repeatedly tells us that we are unworthy of success and happiness, we start to believe it. If there were a little creature sitting on your shoulder constantly criticizing everything you did, you would smash him within minutes. Why let him live inside your head?

I use the heck out of that handicapped parking placard now, not because my self-image surrendered, but rather because it became stronger. Now, I could give a rat’s rear-end about what judgments people might make about the way I walk or where I park. I owe that attitude to a positive self-image that I’m careful to nurture, and I hope the same for you.

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Squashing Envy

Dayton University’s basketball coach, Archie Miller, is nearly ten years younger than I am. Despite his relative youth, and in just his third year as head coach, Miller took his team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Quick, high-level success like that earns awe, respect, and often, envy.

I felt all of those emotions in about thirty seconds the other night, as I watched the Dayton Flyers defeat the Stanford Cardinal in the Sweet Sixteen. The awe came from Miller’s team’s performance. The respect came from the classy way he conducts himself. And the envy? That came from a moment of personal weakness.

Envy is respect’s evil, ugly twin brother. We’re naturally envious of people who have achieved what we wish we could. Ironically, envy causes us to feel bitter toward the source of our envy, when we should actually feel respect.

When we’re envious, we often want to discount another’s success, sometimes rallying against the very success we wish for ourselves. It’s a foolish effort to make ourselves feel better, and it’s made worse when we act on it.

Sadly, I saw this happen twice at high school athletic events in just the past two months. At the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament, the crowd lustily booed when wrestlers from Omaha Skutt Catholic High School won or were even merely announced. Skutt was on its way to another team state title – they have won almost all of the last 15 state championships in their class – and it was evident that many in the crowd were weary of seeing them win, though they eagerly would have traded places with the champions.

The same thing happened the next week at the Nebraska State Swimming Championship, where Omaha Creighton Prep High School was subjected to the same boorish behavior. In both cases, young scholar-athletes were achieving their dreams, and reaping the rewards of sacrifice and countless hours of intense training. When their success should have been applauded, they were hearing boos.

“Envy is ignorance.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Booing and other envious acts broadcast our insecurities to the world. When we act out of envy, we’re showing that we’re not living up to our ideals or that our ideals are unrealistic, given our limitations. We’re also showing that we’re not mature enough to take corrective action within ourselves.

Corrective action should start with honest self-evaluation. The inferiority we feel when we come up short in comparison to others causes mental anguish, but anguish is often misplaced, if the subject of our envy has elite talents that are beyond our reach. Most who booed these high school athletes couldn’t compete at their level. It’s like me booing my friend Jeff during one of his procedures, because he’s a better interventional radiologist than I am. (I barely passed freshman biology in college.)

Be honest with yourself. Is the subject of your envy uniquely talented? If so, be happy for her and admire what God has created. Besides, you probably have some special talents too. It’s hard to be envious and appreciative at the same time, and one of those emotions sure makes you feel better than the other.

Archie Miller is an impressive coach who has managed to capitalize on his talents through hard work and dedication. Though I’m not perfect, I’m comfortable that I too am capitalizing on my blessings, and that helps me squash envy. I hope the same for you.

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Go, and be thankful

“I really don’t want to be here,” a guy told me recently during one of my workouts. I thought about him today, on my sixth consecutive day away from the gym.

Unlike yesterday, I brought my gym bag to work with me today, hopeful that the leg I injured over the weekend had healed to the point where a trip to the gym would help more than it hindered. Instead, common sense prevailed – it’s been doing that more as I age – and I decided to rest the leg another day, so I don’t prolong my recovery.

Ironically, I injured my leg by falling on my way into church on Saturday night. That one stung, but not nearly as bad as the second fall. There is almost always a second – and sometimes even third – fall, as my already weak legs wobble a little more. Fear of the third fall has me walking like a clumsy solider through a minefield, and it’s kept me out of the gym and church.

The gym and church are two places we often grudgingly go or, worse yet, make excuses not to go. I know – I’ve been there. Now, I want to go and can’t. God loves irony.

Most of us are going to experience that irony at one time or another. We’ll long to reconnect with someone we chased out of our life years ago. We’ll wish to recapture moments that passed us as we distracted ourselves with trivial concerns. We’ll ache for abilities and opportunities that age has taken from us.

Devon Walker knows this.

Former Tulane football player Devon Walker’s life suddenly changed in the second game of the 2012 season. An undersized walk-on, he had worked his way into a starting position on the team, and was even a team captain. 2012 was his senior season, and he was eager to take his game to the next level. Unfortunately, he suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury in that game, and has been paralyzed from the neck down since.

Walker was recently awarded the Disney Spirit Award, given to college football’s most inspirational figure. He was a very worthy recipient, because he hasn’t let his circumstances get him down. After a year in grueling rehab, he resumed classes in pursuit of a degree in cell and molecular biology, with designs on attending medical school. Pursuing such a demanding academic program while competing on an athletic team – as a walk-on no less – is impressive enough. That he continues undeterred after such a devastating injury is simply amazing.

While some of his able-bodied classmates grudgingly drag themselves out of bed to attend class, wishing they were elsewhere, Devon struggles through his morning routine for different reasons. Because of his near total paralysis, it takes him more than two hours just to get out of bed and dressed. He needs help to do almost anything physical, even eating and brushing his teeth, yet he attends class. As much as possible, he attends all the practices and activities of the football team too.

I don’t know Devon Walker, but I know that he is human, which means that he is sometimes prone to weakness, like all of us. It’s safe to say that – before his injury – he probably approached some of the more difficult practices in Louisiana’s heat with dread, and he was probably tempted to skip class. Now, ironically, with multiple excuses to do both, he doesn’t.

My leg is healing, and I’ll be back in the gym and in a pew soon. This brief time-out only strengthened my resolve. Is there anything in your life that you complain about, but would truly miss if it were taken from you?

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