Posts Tagged optimisim
February 2019 brought record snow to the area where I live. Snow piled on snow, as every few days seemed to bring a new storm. Record low temperatures accompanied the snow, keeping it from melting as it normally would at this time of year. Even people who profess their love of snow were getting tired of the white stuff.
I don’t love snow. In fact, I intensely dislike snow. When I see flakes falling, frustration and anxiety creep in, since even a dusting of snow on a sidewalk renders me almost completely immobile. When frustration and anxiety creep in, it’s hard to keep a positive attitude. Without a positive attitude, it’s hard to resist complaining.
It’s tempting to justify complaining, especially when you are pushed to your limits. I’m not sure that this winter pushed me to my limits, but it got awfully close. It certainly made me think about complaining.
I’ve thought about complaining before. When he was coaching me before one of my first professional speaking engagements, a really good friend told me: you have every right to be a bitter, angry person, but you’re not. People expect that from people like you who have obvious physical challenges, and they’re disarmed when they meet you and find out that you’re not.
At the time, his words shocked and saddened me. People expected me to be bitter and angry? Why would I be bitter and angry? I know that he was talking about my disability and how I went from a child with no limitations to an adult with some significant physical limitations, but that’s not something that I dwell on.
Mostly, I was baffled that complaining could be justified. If I am justified in complaining, who isn’t? My cousin who suffered a spinal cord injury about a year ago and hasn’t walked unassisted since? My friend who is battling cancer and struggling with a failing heart? Another friend taking care of her Alzheimer’s stricken husband who no longer recognizes her? Friends with relationship challenges whose life trajectories hang in the balance?
Almost everyone I know can justify complaining, but I hear surprisingly little complaining. I’m not complaining that I don’t hear a lot of complaining, but the absence of complaining in my life is remarkable. I suspect that I don’t hear a lot of complaining, because of the way I approach life. I believe that staying positive and not complaining about your circumstances will subject you to fewer complaints from others.
Conversely, when we complain, we open the door for others to do the same, and everyone suffers. Shared misery is a weak foundation for relationships, because complaining erodes happiness.
The official weather station in my neighborhood tells me that 60.9 inches of snow, 37.8 inches over average, have fallen around the house in which I’ve been confined for many days this winter. The forecast for the next few weeks shows little change in the weather pattern with few melting opportunities. Every day, I resist the urge to complain about how the weather limits my life.
Instead, I tell myself that winter won’t last forever. The days are getting longer. The sun is getting brighter, and I’m gaining a stronger appreciation for warm weather. Furthermore, there are far worse places to hunker down than the house I share with my wife and daughter. Most importantly, these weather-related challenges pale when compared to all of the other blessings in my life.
So, no. I can’t complain. Not now. Not ever.
The first snow of the year arrived on Halloween afternoon this year. I caught it blowing past my window as I worked in my office. Not wanting to believe it, I stared out the window for a minute, trying to wish it away. Defeat conceded, my mind jumped from resignation to panic as I contemplated the implications of the coming winter.
Due to my gait, a slippery surface of any kind is almost always unnavigable. Snow, ice, sleet, rain, rain that turns into ice – any of these elements on any surface makes walking extremely dangerous. In a cruel irony, the treatments (salt, sand and gravel) that well-intentioned people use to deal with winter precipitation are often just as dangerous. Even worse, they stay behind much longer than the precipitation. After a few rounds of snow and the ensuing treatments, I feel like I’m trying to walk across a shuffleboard table, desperately trying to reach spring.
As the snow and winter treatments pile up, my world shrinks. I miss days at the gym, church and lunches. I hesitate when friends invite me over. I quit planning things, because I don’t want to be disappointed when the weather keeps me from them. In particularly bad winters, I might as well be under house arrest.
At this time of year, I know that snow will soon negatively affect my lifestyle, and that’s what makes each day before the first snow a valuable gift that I cannot squander. Never do I appreciate good weather days more than in the winter.
We all do this – maybe not with winter weather – but we all suddenly become more appreciative and mindful of our gifts, when something threatens them. We learn that a loved one has a terminal disease, and we scramble to make up for lost time and lost opportunities. Our children near the end of their time with us, and we finally prioritize family time. Our bodies start to fail us, and we become interested in diet and exercise.
Why do we do this? Each day and each experience is a gift, and those gifts shouldn’t have to be threatened for us to appreciate them, but that’s what we often insist on doing. Imagine if we lived every day and seized every experience with the urgency and appreciation that we feel when the end nears.
I spent this last weekend deer hunting with my dad. Though every deer season since 2003 has found me in the field, I had planned to skip this year. My son left for college this summer, and it didn’t seem worth the hassle to hunt without him. I could spend the weekend lounging around my warm home and catching up on projects, instead of driving for hours and subjecting myself to the cold. All of my lame excuses almost won, but one thing changed my mind: how many deer seasons do I have left?
By the time my son graduates, I’ll be over 50, and my dad will be a few years past 70. Things typically don’t get any easier physically when you pass those milestones, and none of those years are guaranteed. That realization was like the snow blowing by my window, awakening my appreciation of what I can do now and prompting me to act.
My reward was a trophy buck and an incredible experience. Though I’ve taken nice deer before, since I didn’t start big game hunting until my 30s and my dad isn’t a big game hunter, I had never taken a deer with my dad. It was an experience I almost missed and probably would have missed had the prospect of impending snow not awakened me.
I pray that God will give me a few more days or even weeks before the first substantial snow, and I plan to do my part by enjoying all of them. The bigger challenge is to sustain this attitude when spring arrives, and the next winter seems so far off.
Think about and appreciate your life’s gifts. Don’t wait for the snow to rattle you awake.
I was forced to sit for the national anthem. It happened a few months ago, at my son’s high school graduation. I wasn’t planning a protest or anything like that. I simply couldn’t stand.
We were packed like sardines in the gymnasium’s bleachers, and I was on the second row, hoping for a slightly better view than the bottom row would afford. Had I thought ahead, I would have stayed on the bottom row. I might have been able to stand up from there, but I need room to go from sitting to standing, and there was no room in the second row. Because my legs can’t do it alone, I have to sprawl and use my arms to thrust myself to a standing position. In my second row seat, I was surrounded on three sides by grandmothers who couldn’t climb any higher and my daughter, who is strong, but not strong enough to help me get up. An attempt to stand in such an environment risked multiple casualties.
I realized my predicament shortly before the ceremony started, when I looked at the program. I whispered to my dad, a Vietnam combat veteran, that I wasn’t going to be able to stand. He said that we could move some people around and he could try to help me, but as tight as the bottom row was, I wasn’t certain that would even work, and I didn’t want to disrupt others in the short time we had left, so I sat as the anthem began.
Sitting for the anthem is an uncomfortable feeling. I had never done it before, and I hope to never do it again. It went against everything I was ever taught. My dad and countless other influential people taught me to be respectful and reflective during the national anthem – to stand straight and quietly focus on the flag. I taught my own children the same thing. The anthem isn’t your time to do as you please, I told them. It’s time that should be focused on those who sacrificed to give you the freedom you enjoy. When you disrespect the anthem, you disrespect heroic people who experienced things we can’t even imagine in the defense of freedoms we enjoy today.
I wasn’t being disrespectful as I sat, though it certainly felt like it. I watched feeble grandfathers rise from their wheelchairs and small children stand silently by their parents. It seemed that everyone but I was standing. As I sat, it was hard to be reflective and respectful. As I sat, I regretted that I didn’t try harder to stand, though I had strong doubts that the ensuing disruption would have led to success. I had little choice but to sit, but it still didn’t feel right.
I can’t imagine choosing to sit, especially when your strong legs bless you with the ability to make millions playing a game. Isn’t that blessing alone enough for you to appreciate those who made the ultimate sacrifice that enabled freedoms like participating in, or watching an NFL game? Sure, the world isn’t perfect, and could use some tuning, but disrespect isn’t the way to influence those changes.
Disrespect often results from a lack of gratitude, and a lack of gratitude isn’t a particularly endearing trait. If we look hard enough, each of us can uncover some grievances. However, if we look hard enough, we can also find ample blessings. When we do that, we are much happier people, and happy people are more effective leaders of change than ungrateful people who focus on the negative.
I wish my legs allowed me to stand for the national anthem at my son’s graduation. It isn’t fair that I was forced to sit in the stands while those with powerful legs choose to sit on the sidelines. Anger at that injustice could be overpowering, if I let it. Instead, I choose to be thankful for the things that I can do and for all my other blessings, including living in the greatest country in the world.
No, things will never be perfect, but that shouldn’t discourage us from exercising gratitude and encouraging others to do the same.
I can make the trip from my office to my home in 17 minutes, if traffic and lights cooperate, and in 22 minutes, if they don’t. I’m embarrassed to admit how much anguish that five-minute gap has caused me.
When I leave my office, my mind is often dulled from a day of recruiting talent. Though I enjoy what I do, being an executive recruiter can be very frustrating. Because we deal with rejection and disappointment daily, recruiters must be extremely persistent and remain unshaken by failure. Almost as important, they need to be able to switch off negative emotions at the end of the day. That’s often a challenge.
When I get into my truck and head into traffic, I often take the frustrations of the day with me, and that causes me to lose perspective. When I should be unwinding from the day and looking forward to the blessings that await me at home, I dive right into frustration, which is insane, because so little of my commute is within my control.
I can’t control how many red lights will stop me or how many blue-hair-driven Buicks will slow my pace. In my saner moments, I rationalize that God controls Buicks and red lights, and he uses them to remind me who’s in charge and what’s really at stake – 300 seconds. It’s easy to see that when I’m not staring at taillights, but when I’m on the road, those five extra minutes seem so much more important than they really are.
I believe that unbalanced perspectives like this are common in many areas and that they cause us way more stress than they should. Maybe someone doesn’t return our phone call as quickly as we think they should, and we assume that they’re indifferent to our relationship. Perhaps a temporary illness slows us down or causes us to miss something important to us. It can seem like a rain cloud hovers over our proverbial parade, if we lose our perspective.
I recently saw a sign that said, “Did you really have a bad day or have 15 bad minutes that you allowed to ruin your day?” We have all had truly bad days, but fortunately, the truly bad days are few and far between. Most of the time, a bad day is the result of our reaction to a disappointment, and we made it a bad day because we carried that disappointment with us through the rest of the day when we should have left it in place.
I’m currently reading a book that I highly recommend to anyone who recognizes this misbalanced perspective in their own life. The title is “The Gift.” It’s written by Rhonda Byrne, and is a sequel to her popular book, “The Secret.” The theme of the book is that appreciation shields us from negativity. When we’re truly appreciative, we’re impervious to negativity.
If we take time to count our blessings, we don’t have time to tally our frustrations and disappointments. When we’re truly appreciative, even if we recognize our frustrations and disappointments, we’ll put them in their place – deep in the shadows of our blessings.
I try to do that now, when I feel those frustrations bubbling up on the road. Instead of focusing on other drivers who don’t drive to my expectations, I think about the blessings that await me at home. Instead of focusing on the minutes ticking by as I wait for a light to turn green, I am quietly thankful for the comfort of my transportation. Without it, I wouldn’t have the freedom to travel virtually anywhere I want, at any time and in any weather.
If I’m successful in being truly appreciative, before I know it, I’m home and happy, because I didn’t let those 17-22 minutes pollute my mood. That sure beats the alternative.
My kids have never skied. Because their dad gets around on the snow and ice about as well as a three-legged giraffe, we look for warmer climates for winter outings.
The ironic thing is that I have skied. In fact, I went several times as a kid when my body was much smaller and more limber. I loved flying down the slopes, feeling the cold air and warm sun on my face. Though it’s been more than 30 years, I can still vividly remember racing my dad down the slopes of Summit County, Colorado, and beating him. Recent Facebook pictures and videos of my friends and their kids on ski trips have brought those memories back.
It is frustrating to realize that I’ll never share the same memories with my kids, but I’m not jealous. I’m happy for people who are able to do things like this, and, at the same time, thankful for all that I can do.
Life has taught me that, if we get caught up wishing for things that are out of our reach, we become blinded to the blessings around us. My always-appreciative grandfather embodied that attitude.
Growing up during the Great Depression without his mother who died when he was four years old, my grandfather was on his own by age 14, stowing away on trains and getting by as a migrant farm worker in the beet fields of Western Nebraska. That harsh existence made him appreciative of the simplest things in life that most of us take for granted. Roast beef was his favorite meal, and he never used credit, even to buy a house. He was never a wealthy man, but what he had, he loved and appreciated.
My grandfather found something good in almost anything and anyone, because he knew what it was like to have nothing and no one. Sometimes, we need to experience the discomfort of limitation in order to benefit from the comfort that appreciation provides.
Recently, a good friend went on a hunt I’ve dreamed about – to New Zealand to hunt red stag. He invited me to go, but my wife and I have a lot of expenses coming up with the house and kids, so I didn’t want to spend the money on something that would benefit only me, though I absolutely have done that before.
On the day before he left, I started to send him a message that began with “I’m jealous.” It’s a cliché that many of us use when we see someone with something we want. We use that phrase without even thinking of what it implies – that someone else is experiencing joy that we feel somehow entitled to, and we’re not happy about it. When we say “I’m jealous,” we’re making it about us and our own frustrations, even if we don’t intend it that way.
Yes, I do want to hunt red stag in New Zealand, but the fact that I wasn’t going on this trip shouldn’t create the negative emotion of jealousy. In fact, it should be just the opposite. I should be happy for him, because I know how much the trip means to him, and I know that he would be happy for me if the roles were reversed. Jealousy has no place in that equation.
I thought of those things as I used the backspace key to correct my message. Mostly though, I thought about all of the blessings in my own life and how jealousy unfairly minimizes their value.
I’m not perfect, but I try never to say, “I’m jealous.” If I’m fortunate enough to catch the words before they spill out of my mouth, I use the occasion to count my blessings. I even count my limitations as blessings, because they shine a spotlight on all that I have and all that I can do.
We should be two tournaments and a dual into my son’s penultimate season of high school wrestling, but we’re not. A knee injury in the last football game of the season has him sitting impatiently on the sidelines.
That first tournament was going to be tough. Two guys in his weight class will be D1 FBS scholarship linemen next year. One of them is a defending undefeated state champion, and headed to Nebraska. The other is 6’5” and 285 lbs, and headed to Arkansas. Patrick lost to him last year, 7-1. The defending champion and last year’s runner-up would be in his brackets in several tournaments this season. Undoubtedly, this wrestling season was going to be challenging, but after finishing third last year, he had prepared for that, and eagerly anticipated the challenge. Now, it’s not going to happen.
Multiple sports seasons relatively free of injury probably gave us a false sense of confidence. Last wrestling season’s bout with mono was challenging, but the time away from the mat was brief, and Patrick was able to recover in time for the important season-ending tournaments, winning 17 of his last 20 matches. This time, we weren’t as lucky.
At the exact moment his coaches and teammates were posing for the annual team picture, he was being wheeled into the operating room.
Optimism is the rule in our house, and in the few days between the injury and the prognosis, we clung to the hope that surgery wouldn’t be necessary and that time away from the mat would be short. It was tough to see that snatched from him, but we’re treating the experience as a powerful lesson in perspective.
Missing a wrestling season, while disappointing, barely registers on the list of possible health-related challenges. While we were learning that knee surgery would be necessary, some people were getting dire cancer prognoses. While he’s in physical therapy, they will be in chemotherapy. When he’s competing again in a few months, their battle will wage on.
It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you think like that. It also gives you a reason to be thankful for everything that you do have. Gratitude is important any time we face life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks, because it helps us push back self-pity.
When we face these setbacks, it’s tempting to feel like helpless victims of circumstance. Why me? will cross our minds, if not our lips. It’s hard to accept the reality that God sometimes puts us on the sidelines so we understand the game better when our number is called. It’s even harder to treat these experiences as blessings, but they are, if our attitudes are right.
I’ve learned from experience that it’s important to face adversity with faith and optimism. With that attitude in place, setbacks can give us an opportunity to fully reach the depth of our potential. Maybe things have come too easily for us, and only with a unique challenge will we be forced to “find that extra gear.” At other times, setbacks force us into thinking, thinking about how we can live better, more effective lives. Almost always, setbacks give us the opportunity to take an inventory of our lives and a chance to rearrange our priorities so that the most important things get an appropriate amount of our attention.
Though this wrestling season won’t go the way we hoped, we’re making the best out of the experience. Instead of dwelling in the negatives of recovery, we are focused on the positives. The unexpected off-season will give him extra time to build himself in the weight room. It will also provide an opportunity to observe the emotional roller coaster of a wrestling season and be better prepared for it next season. Most important, he is learning to fully appreciate everything and everyone around him. For that, we’re thankful.
* Thanks for all of the notes of support. Patrick’s injury was a meniscus tear (fortunately, no ligament damage) that required some sewing. He has to be very careful in rehab and diligent in his exercise, but 100% recovery is expected.
“Assume everyone is stupid, distracted or out to get you,” I told my 14-year-old daughter the other day, as she steered us through West Omaha traffic. We were continuing our odyssey toward achieving a level of comfort with her behind the wheel.
She was driving down a busy street and into a parking lot, and I wanted her to know that danger could appear out of almost anywhere. That guy driving beside you? He could suddenly switch lanes or unexpectedly jam on his brakes. That lady approaching the intersection? Don’t assume that she’s going to yield to you. Don’t trust anyone. Assume the worst, and be prepared for it.
That is exactly how we should drive, and exactly opposite of how we should live, but how often do we live like we drive?
Maybe a friend doesn’t immediately return our call, and we assume that there is tension in the friendship. Maybe our boss wants us to meet him in his office at the end of the day, and we’re certain that we’re going to get reprimanded or worse. Maybe we have a headache, but instead of taking an aspirin and relaxing, we head to WebMD and start researching brain cancer.
We’re often looking for trouble that doesn’t exist, and because of that, we’re making ourselves needlessly miserable. If we’re always looking for someone to pull out in front of us, we’ll never enjoy the journey.
I had to get over this when I first start dating my wife nearly 22 years ago. I had experienced a bad break-up of a four-year relationship the year before, and I had promised myself that I wasn’t going to put myself through that again. Everything was going to have to be perfect, I told myself, before I would ever become emotionally attached to another person.
It was far from perfect. She lived in Washington, DC. I lived in Nebraska. I was a teacher. She was a medical student. Our lives were occurring in different places and following different paths. Getting into such a relationship seemed like speeding on an icy road; there were too many things that could go wrong, but instead of slowing down, I stood on the accelerator, and I’m very glad that I did.
The bad break-up I feared never happened, but for the first year, I drove with my foot hovering over the brake. When I should have been feeling contentment and happiness, I felt anxiety and fear. We shouldn’t live like that.
A modicum of caution is essential to an orderly life, but there is a huge difference between expecting the worst and simply acknowledging its existence. We don’t have to scan our yards for prowlers before locking the doors at night. Likewise, we shouldn’t anticipate failure when we’re pursuing success. Failure doesn’t need that advantage.
Kelly is getting much better at driving. Like her older brother who was taught the same lessons when he was learning to drive, she drives with heightened awareness of the potential dangers she might encounter. That will make her a cautious driver – exactly what you want when you hand the keys to a teenager.
There will be dangers in her life off the road too, and I certainly want her to be aware of them, just not looking for them. When we constantly look for trouble, it seems that we usually find it. Part of life’s beauty is that the same is true for hope and inspiration. Expect it and look for it, and you’ll likely find it.