My dad traveled often for work and for the various professional and service organizations in which he was involved. When he retired, he used his extra time to become involved in more organizations.
In his later years he visited China, and he and Mom went to Australia and to several European countries. One October day he left the house early, drove five hours to a board meeting at a private university, and drove home again. He was in the basement riding his exercise bike when a stroke changed his life.
When he had recovered enough, he was told what had happened. Then he was told he was paralyzed from the bottom of his rib cage on down.
You might think that a person who had spent decades involved in so many things, who was used to traveling, and coming and going as he pleased, a man who had said he never wanted to be confined to a wheel chair and unable to do for himself, you might think a man like that would become bitter and depressed.
It wasn’t too many days before he asked to see the surgeon who had “saved his life.” He wanted to shake his hand and thank him. He felt he owed him a huge debt of gratitude.
In the remaining two years Dad had, I never saw him bitter or angry or depressed. One day, just a few months before his death, I asked him how he, a man who in his younger years was known for his temper, had managed to come to terms with his stroke and paralysis. It must be hard living such a different life.
His answer was as simple as it was mysterious.
“When you just accept it, then it’s not hard.”
By that point in his life, Dad didn’t do a lot of talking. So I didn’t ask for an explanation. But I think if I had pressed him, what he might have told me was the same thing he had said throughout his life. “If I can’t do anything about it, then I’m not going to worry about it.”
He was a master at assessing a situation and determining what he could control, and what he could not. The one thing he could always control was his response to the situation. No one forced him to be negative, combative, uncooperative or unpleasant in his current state. And so, he wasn’t.
None of us can control the past. We don’t have much control over the future. We do have complete control over our personal present. Sometimes we encounter setbacks that we find impossible to not take personally, and so we focus on ourselves in ways that make us at best, difficult, and at worst, downright impossible, to be around. It doesn’t have to be that way. Chances are better than average that whatever is causing our angst is really about others and their own issues and has little to do with us. Even when we know in our heart of hearts that ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ is – is absolutely about us, our attitude, our personal present, is the one thing that is completely within our control. We can choose to be depressed or angry, or we can choose to remain upbeat and calm. We can choose to remain committed to our better selves.
Dad chose to remain committed to his better self. He was upbeat, and he found joy where he could: a short roll through the garden outside his nursing home door; visits from a few friends; the births of two great-grandchildren; and, Sunday dinners with Mom and visits from her and family during the week.
Live Honest, Open and True
The next time you find yourself in an impossible situation, take a few deep breaths, count to 10, and remind yourself that while everything else may be completely beyond your control, you still control your attitude and your response.
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