The truth about do-overs

There’s something unique about senior years in high school. Largely, they include things you’ll do for the first time and things you’ll do for the last time. I edited a school newspaper for the first time in my life and, just before graduation, for the last time. I acted (well sort of) and sang in Oklahoma! for the first and, so far, for the last time. I produced a talent show and haven’t done that since I graduated with my fellow 350 classmates, most of whom I’ve not seen since.

I’ve thought about reprising my senior year and playing certain things out differently—no doubt carefully applying the benefits that being older and wiser afford. I’d probably be friendlier and more outgoing. I’d be less concerned about being popular and more about helping others without regard for their place in the school. I’d befriend more people, ask more questions, help more folks, appreciate my parents more, find fewer faults, praise others more often, and find the courage to stand up to bullies…

The unfortunate thing about life is that we rarely get true “do-overs.”

We might have a chance to offer an apology for something we’ve done. Or, as they say (somewhere), “mend our ways.” But we can’t take back what’s been done. We can only choose what we’ll do in the present moment to make a difference, offer hope, change a life, encourage the dispirited, say “thanks,” open a door, smile, help others laugh…

The point is not what has happened—unchangeable and cast already—but what we choose to make happen in the here and now. Although decent intentions are always good to have, the future is only created by action.

The beginnings and ends of years, days and minutes are somewhat irrelevant—and mostly artificial—markers. It’s what happens within those markers that can change a life.

What if we lived life knowing (really knowing) that there are no do-overs? What would a life lived that way really be?

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Following intense rehab, snowboarder Kevin Pearce returns home

After four months of intense rehab following a near-fatal snowboarding accident, Kevin Pearce returned to his family’s Norwich, VT home last week. Although hopes for an Olympic metal were dashed, for him, being home with his family was a golden moment that gave him a new perspective on his young life.

You can read a New York Times account here and watch NBC Nightly News coverage here. An ItsJakesWorld post from February 27, 2010 is here.

The virtue of bad news

Newspaper and television reports, filled with stories of hardship and misfortune, affect us on some level. Yet, each report takes on a different meaning when the casualty of war is a friend’s son or daughter, or when unemployment becomes a family member’s story.

Although the news seems to be about “the other guy,” it may be more about us than we think.

I was reminded of this the other day when a co-worker’s dear mother passed on unexpectedly. At a spry 80-plus years, she was filled with spunk and lived a strong and inspiring life. Although I never knew her personally, her death reminded me of my parents’ lives and how much their values permeate my work and friendships today. As I wrote a note to my friend the other night, I found myself thinking that her mom’s enthusiasm and drive didn’t die with her, rather, it was being passed on through the stories she shared with me and others. Her passing, a huge loss for her family, contained a small note of inspiration for me: How could I dial up my own enthusiasm for life? It was a small measure of good to be found in the bad news.

Something similar could be said for news accounts of the Haiti earthquake. Most of us have trouble relating to devastation on such a large scale, but it becomes real when a neighbor’s home is damaged by fire or flood. Suddenly “over there” moves closer to home. What does that mean to me and can I reach out to lighten the burden? Perhaps the news calls us to be a contribution.

Millions of people today are looking for work after losing their jobs to economic conditions. The big numbers and statistics shield us from individuals with faces, names, families and their own stories. For them, the bad news contains little good. Yet that judgment may be hasty, especially if causes us to miss how the closing of one door points to others we didn’t see.

And, that may be the point. Sometimes the current situation—good, bad or otherwise—can lead us, if not lull us, into complacency about how much we really have to offer others. We may accept the status quo because the not status-quo is scary or not even apparent. So, we settle for what we have because it’s convenient, if not easy and safe.

What if the “We have to let you go” message that many have heard is really “We’re setting you free.” I don’t credit employers with all that much smarts, insight or unselfishness. We have to assume that for ourselves. We must read the lines and understand the real story. We choose how we hear the message.

Being set free isn’t such a bad thing. Neither is taking a longed-for chance or a risk, something that can be scary and heartening at the same time.

Set free. Seeing new doors and opening them to a better life and greater contribution.

That’s the virtue in bad news.

Olympic mettle

I’ve not always been a fan of the Olympics. Not being particularly athletic or overly interested in sports, they always seemed to be a non-event. That was until, a few years ago, a friend and colleague told me how much the athletes’ dedication, incredibly hard work, and personal sacrifice inspired him and his wife.

And so, I started watching. At first, with disinterest and skepticism. Then, with curiosity. Later with attachment. And now, with awe.

Yes, there are carefully choreographed opening spectacles with parades of athletes bursting with national pride. And there is the generally good-natured rivalry between teammates who cheer each other in nearly selfless joy.

But it’s the stories inside the events that speak to the mettle of which these young athletes are made.

Snowboarder Kevin Pearce and brother David. Click on the picture to watch an NBC story about Kevin and his family.

There’s the story of Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who lost her mother just two days before her walk onto the ice. Understandably shaken, but undeterred, she won a bronze medal.

And there’s Kwame-Nkrumah Acheampong, the 33-year-old, one-man ski team from Ghana. Nicknamed “snow leopard” because the animal is as uncommon as a skier from Ghana, his skiing career started only five years ago.

And Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, a man who faced down addiction and pain to become the first skier to land “the hurricane,” a wrap of five twists into three somersaults that takes place 50 feet in the air. For Speedy, it was a silver medal.

Most Olympic stories are not just about an athlete. They are the stories of people who, through their own sacrifice and support, make another’s achievements possible. Take Kevin Pearce, whose half-pipe moves are compared to those of fellow snowboarder Shaun White–this Olympic’s gold medal winner. Kevin, who couldn’t compete due to a serious injury he suffered on December 31, 2009, now fiercely struggles to talk again and to regain the use of his limbs. It’s a slow, slow process. But it’s his brother, David, born with Down Syndrome, who has provided an unexpected perspective on Kevin’s recovery. “We learned patience from David,” his mother said, remembering that it took him three years to learn to put on his seatbelt.

For many Olympians, there will be medals. For all, there will be memories deeply etched in Vancouver’s snow.

But for Kevin, brothers David, Andrew and Adam, and parents Pia and Simon, there are no medals, no snow, only love.

And, perhaps that is the best metal of all.

May 3, 2010 UPDATE: Kevin is making a remarkable recovery, has been released from Craig Hospital in Englewood, CO, and awaits the real victory of returning to his home in Norwich, VT. His doctor says he’ll be able to make another return: to snowboarding!

Of greener grass and the proverbial fence

Winter’s weeks-long grip on the South has relaxed a bit of late. Temperatures, which have barely peaked above the 40s in what seems like forever, have climbed into the 60s much to the delight of children and adults playing in the parks and strolling along walking trails. It won’t be long before tulips push through the soggy ground and the local soccer fields turn green.

For some reason, this change of scenery reminded me of an expression I first heard from my dad when I was probably five years old. We were engaged in one of those “I wish” conversations where you want what you don’t have. After wishing things into the ground for several minutes, he looked at me and said, “Son, you know they always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” To me, this confirmed that fences were meant to deprive animals of the good fortune of better grass “over there.” In this case is was in the neighbor’s pasture.

My five-year-old logic said that if you took the fences down, horses and cows wouldn’t have to be jealous of another’s better fortune and could move wherever they perceived the greener grass to be. Admittedly, it wasn’t the most practical of solutions.

Despite my childish logic, his point didn’t escape me. Nor does it today.

But we do seem to live in a world that, just beyond our grasp, is slightly better than the one in our hands. We long for warmer weather in the throes of winter and more moderate temperatures during the summer. Or, we’re on the prowl for better jobs, friends, houses or lovers. And, because greener/better is always “over there,” we never quite find it.

Another take on the greener over there proverb came to me awhile ago as I was waiting for a friend to arrive at her office. As I waited patiently, one of her office mates began describing the strong odor of solvent coming from another office in the building. She complained about the thoughtlessness of the landlord and the lack of ventilation, how she’d had to cancel classes during the week and how miserable the situation made her. Despite my suggestion about not letting this take her joy away, nothing would shake her angry words about the problem in which she seemed firmly anchored.

Largely, her story is the same drama in which, at times, we act. Becoming so enwrapped in a situation, we cannot choose a different scene or better context. We see and experience only the moment in all its horrifitude. (That’s a new word.)

In my own experience, I find it’s difficult to see how stuck we really are. But others often see what we don’t, that we have options, choices and potential. Potential that goes unrealized as we look and relook at the same problem, seeing the same evidence over and over again.

Is there a way out? Almost always. Here are three questions that help:

  • Is there another way to look at this problem/situation/event? Think of it this way: How would someone completely unconnected describe it?
  • Am I letting this define who I am and how I think about myself? It’s a case of choosing a new script or a new role to take on.
  • If I can’t change the whole picture, is there a part I can change?

My dad’s admonition about the grass being greener on the other side is a good reminder that where we are often looks more bleak than where we aren’t. The idea of moving “over there” is, of course, tempting but not always practical.

Yet the grass remains under our feet. How we look at it is largely up to us.

How do you measure a year?

Jonathan Larson’s catchy song “Seasons of Love” poses an interesting question. It’s from the overwhelmingly popular Broadway musical (and movie) Rent in which impoverished friends—young artists and musicians—struggle to survive and create in New York City. In the song, the cast considers how a year is best “measured.” Should it be by days or cups of coffee, they wonder. Or perhaps it should be in inches, miles, laughter or strife. They conclude the best way is in 525,600 minutes. But not just any kind of minutes, but moments of love.

(You can watch a video of the song here.)

Not to get heavy here, but it’s pretty clear that our world needs help. As you think about this year, it’s been one of difficult choices and anger that borders on hatred. But when you think about the new year, it is a collage of choices yet to be made, one after another.

And so, as we close out this year with its own 525,600 moments—98 percent of them already spent—and begin another decade, we do so, one moment at a time.

That presents a powerful opportunity to choose how we’ll live 2010. Will it be by bringing more compassion, care and loving concern to our neighbors and planet? That would be good.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s a sort of do less of, do more of, and give to others approach…

  • What if you could eliminate one habit from your life that no longer serves you well. How would that help you grow next year? (For me, being too skeptical or hesitant comes to mind.)
  • What if you could add one thing to your life. How could it improve your well-being and outlook? (More time to grow spiritually probably tops the list in my world.)
  • What could you give to others to make the world a better place? (Being more tolerant and patient fits for me.)

Think about the do less, do more, help others question. Then, begin each day thinking about how you can put each into practice. How about a scorecard to track your progress?

Think of it this way: Any time you do what’s on your list is one less moment of doing the opposite.

Want to join me? It’ll only take a minute.

I mean, it’s not like you don’t have 525,600 of them next year!

The gift

iStock_000006416445XSmallI was scanning the online version of a local newspaper yesterday and I was amazed at comments from readers who, to put it mildly, seemed really angry (if not hostile) about the closing of a particular store in the city’s downtown area. It’s not what you think: They were angry because the store, in their opinion, catered to wealthy people and, as such, deserved to close. Yes, the logic is somewhat flawed.

It made me think about the opposite of anger and hostility. Could holding kind and loving thoughts make a difference in our experience and in that of others? We do know that people who constantly look at the emptiness of the glass (and embrace other limiting thoughts) have higher rates of depression and less health. And, conversely, we know that people who are positive, reinforcing and who express joy spread it to others. (Here’s a post about that.)

As I thought about the comments on the store’s closing, I was tempted to add my own to the ones already there. I would write about how such criticism of the store or others (regardless of their financial conditions) really didn’t better mankind much at all.

Instead, I went in a different direction. What if we thought about our lives as giving to others without regard to status or wealth? Those who are given lots share with those who don’t have. And those who have less share their gifts with others. Each of us has a gift to give.

What if you had a gift to give someone: a gift that you knew was beautiful and would bless others.

What if the person wasn’t ready to receive it? Would you withhold it because you fear it would be rejected and you along with it?

But what if the gift had to do with the Universe unfolding to someone and nothing to do with you?

And what if the gift–even if not acknowledged–would remain what it was, ready to come to life in the way a dormant flower or plant awakens in the spring? And what if it might, at some point in the future, be recognized for what it was?

And what if that gift was love?